But in many ways, this was an earthquake like no other.
Nearly 60 million people felt direct shaking. The breakdown as measured by theModified Mercalli Intensity scale, which is calibrated to measure surface impact rather than seismic energy: “2.14 million (VIII – Severe), 29.96 million (VII – Very Strong), 19.69 million (VI – Strong) and 7.07 million (V – Moderate).”
Then the tsunami hit, a 30-foot killer wave weaponized with debris, racing inland with pedal-to-the-metal speed, flattening buildings, drowning fields, swamping towns, shredding lives.
This being Japan, where all phones are smart and digital cameras abound, the catastrophe was documented in staggering detail. In near real-time, images raced across the planet even faster than the tsunami. We watched in collective global horror as dark water oozed across the land, snuffing out all signs of life and civilization in its path. From Tokyo came video of chandeliers shaking, computers tumbling, books falling. We felt people’s terror in the crazy angles of videotaped escapes. We cried out as shards of glass rained down on frightened office-workers.
By night, fires lit up the sky. By day, black smoke spewed from an oil refinery.
And then the first of two nuclear plants plant buildings exploded, unleashing the twin specters of Hiroshima and Chernobyl (whose 25th anniversary comes up in a few weeks). If the sight of a flattened landscape wasn’t enough to drive home the sobering truth of man’s limitations against primal forces of nature, hundreds of aftershocks—dozens measuring 6.0 or higher— continued to shake the ground for the slow learners.
So strong was the initial jolt, report scientists, the Earth itself was moved inches off its axis and sped up ever-so-slightly, while Japan shifted eight feet closer to the US.
The death toll, which could top 10,000, comes nowhere near the scale of the human tragedy witnessed in Banda Aceh after the tsunami there six years ago. Still, it is beyond all ken: Thousands gone in an instant. For the survivors it will be a slow, costly recovery, strewn with stark choices.
Japan relies on nuclear power to supply one-third of its energy needs. Rolling blackouts are planned for the next several weeks, a forced conservation to make up for loss of the plants damaged in the quakes. Economists predict that alone could shave off nearly a third of a percentage point of GDP: “A 25 percent cut in the power supply may hurt production in the manufacturing sector by 2.5 percent, 5 percent for the non- manufacturing sector and 10 percent for the financial, insurance, information and telecommunications sectors…”.
Around the world, over 400, mostly older, nuclear plants are online, some in areas vulnerable to natural disaster. Some 65 new reactors are under construction worldwide, with another 155 planned. Earthquake-prone Italy is banking on nuclear. So are India and China, seeing it as a way to counter carbon-spew from coal-burning power plants. The Japanese disaster has caused the Indians to reassess, but the Chinese are determined to go forward, albeit with a bit more caution.
Ironically, it may be the very carbon-spew these countries seek to curb that is making nuclear power an increasingly dangerous option.
CONNECTIONS & CONSEQUENCES
Last April, a group of scientists specializing in climate-modeling called for “wide-ranging research into whether more volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis could be triggered by rising global temperatures under global warming.” This came after years of small studies suggested the likelihood of such links.
In polar regions, melting ice releases pressure on land, allowing it to bounce back to its pre-glacial state (a process called isostatic rebound). That, in turn, alters pressure on tectonic plates, increasing the odds for volcanic and seismic activity. Meanwhile, drip by drip, the water from the melted ice raises sea levels, which alters stress levels elsewhere on the planet.
Fourteen years ago, a study published in Nature looked at the rate of sea level rise and volcanic activity over an 80,000 year stretch in the Mediterranean. “When sea level rose quickly, more volcanic eruptions occurred, increasing by a whopping 300 percent.”
Speed, then, plays a role. Worryingly, the rate at which the ice in Greenland and Antarctica is melting is accelerating, according to new research published this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
A large quake—7.5 or above--was, in fact, predicted to occur sometime over the next 30 years for the fault that gave way so spectacularly last Friday, but no one expected, or was prepared for, a 9.0. Indeed, no major earthquake for which there is any record or reference over the last 1,300 years in Japan has been that powerful.
Could tectonic pressures linked to climate change have played a role?
When we think of climate change, we tend to think of droughts, floods, extreme weather and ocean acidification. But the atmosphere and the lithosphere have had an eons-long relationship, full of subtleties beyond current human understanding. Researchers just now are beginning to tie specific weather events to climate change. We still cannot predict seismic events, much less make connections to specific triggers.
The past, however, does offer some disturbing clues. And one way or the other, as greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, warming the planet at record speed, melting its ice and changing its weather patterns, we are bound to find out.
BOTS TO THE RESCUE
In the meantime, in a lemonade-from-lemons sort of way, at least there has been some progress on the Search and Rescue bot front. Two in particular caught our attention:
“We need to design a robot that knows social graces and can garner trust and show respect and expertise. If you send down a robot that seems like a moron, that’s not going to help. It’s not going to make you like it. If it’s going to be a companion, a buddy, then you’d better like it. Think of all the things you need to be an effective search and rescue buddy. The robot has to likeable, seem smart, be trustworthy and seem caring, optimistic—but not overly optimistic.”
—Clifford Nass, Stanford University
- The Kinect bot, developed by a student team at the U.K.’s Warwick University, using Xbox technology to detect survivor moment and distance—a clever hack that delivers tremendous functionality for little cost.
- Susan Casey talks tsunamis and the mysteries of wave science (Poptech / video)
- Worldwide Monitoring Network Allows for Rapid Tsunami Warnings (Scientific American)
- Interview with David Brenner, Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University (Rachel Maddow / video)
- “The Scariest Earthquake Yet to Come” (Simon Winchester / Newsweek)