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11
Dec

Tsunami

Maybe you caught wind of the tsunami that came through Japan recently. (Yes, I do think that was an embarrassing, vague, weather-related pun). There was an 8.1-magnitude earthquake north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido last week, according to Japan’s Meteorological Agency. This created a momentary reduction in water level, which led to a massive water surge that we like to call a tsunami, all aided by typhoon-like weather conditions. All of this according to a Geology class I was occasionally awake for three semesters ago and what I could gather from a hastily written CNN article that I read a few days ago.

Initially it was a small 16-inch wave, but in time water levels had risen by a few feet around Hokkaido. Alongside the northern coast of that island, Japanese officials were expecting waves nearly 7 feet tall, sizeable during a usually calm season, according to NHK, Japan’s primary public broadcasting agency. Now, for friends and family 15,000 miles away, the fact that this earthquake happened 1,000 miles northeast of Tokyo wasn’t much comfort. I got a handful of emails checking on me, but, understand, the distance between Tokyo and the epicenter was about the distance between Philadelphia and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Would you really worry much about your own safety if some natural disaster hit the Twin Cities?

Now, I’m sure it didn’t help that American news sources ran articles with quotations like, “An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines in the region near the epicenter within minutes to hours,” as said by a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to National Public Radio. Also, to be sure, since the 9.1-magnitude earthquake that hit the coast of Indonesia and led to a tsunami killing more than 200,000 people across 11 countries back in December of 2004, even the word ‘tsunami’ summons images of death to a lot of people, particularly Westerners who are a little less experienced with these Pacific-famed storms.

Now, climate-change fiends are beyond worry over the increase of storm strength due to a warming ecosystem, and, it certainly appears, they aren’t that crazy, but, fortunately, natural disasters are as regularly deadly as we sometimes think. Moreover, as a common understanding among the meteorological community tells, most of the deaths resulting from naturally occurring, climatic events are caused by man-made infrastructure crumbling or foolish living patterns.

If you’ve learned anything about me by reading this, you’ll have learned that something like this sent me into a flurry of research to broaden my understanding. The largest earthquake since 1900 (with the entry of the first modern earthquake magnitude scale) hit 9.5 on the Richter scale in late May of 1960 in Chile. 9.5!? I can’t even imagine that. Still, while sad, relatively few, 2,000, people lost their lives. The most amazing result was how widespread the damage was, though, from $75 million worth of damage in Hawaii to 138 deaths and $50 million in Japan, according to the United States Geological Survey.

In addition to the 1960 Chilean earthquake and the one that resulted in the deadliest tsunami in history in December of 2004, there have been only two other earthquakes in more than a century of recorded history with magnitudes 9.0 or greater. There was a 9.2 in southeastern Alaska, which caused 100 deaths in 1964, and another registering 9.0 in 1952 on the Pacific island of Kamchatka, with no recorded casualties, according to the USGS.

Now, I am a nerd, to be sure, as I find all of this fascinating, but I think I have a reason to write all of this. I suppose my point is that the scary reality is that natural disasters, being natural, have no human concept of order or sense to them. They tell me that I am in greater danger here in Japan of the earth opening up and swallowing me than I would be on eastern U.S. soil, but, then, I have a much better chance of being murdered over $15 on a dark Philadelphia street than any of this. We act with calculated risks, but I don’t think too much time should be spent calculating those risks.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there was an earthquake in Franklin, New Jersey, just minutes from my childhood home, back in February (0.9, but an earthquake nonetheless). On big maps, the world seems a lot smaller than it really is. To my friends, an earthquake in northern Japan means sure danger for me in the Kanto region, though Japan is as large as California, and I don’t think anyone in Northern California is fretting over seismic activity in San Diego. This tiny world of ours is bigger than we sometimes think.

Jaa ne,
Christopher

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