March 17, 2011


As the news about 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami in Japan continues to unfold, we all feel so sorry for the people of Sendai and the surrounding area. Many people are still without adequate food, water or shelter, and it is winter there, with temperatures overnight going down below freezing. And now, survivors must worry about exposure to radiation from the damaged nuclear power plants. Nature’s power can be awesome, but also devastating, as we are seeing each day when we look at the news.

I was in a school speaking to students this week, and many of them asked good questions about the incredibly strong earthquake and tsunami that happened last week in Japan. As I was answering their questions, I found myself saying that in the long run, this is going to be a huge and valuable learning experience for scientists. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment, but this earthquake, and in particular the tsunami, have been filmed in a way that we have never seen before. There have been many, many photographs and videos taken of the devastation following earthquakes and tsunamis over the years. But in today’s digital age with HD video cameras on many cell phones and digital cameras, we have footage the likes of which we have never seen before, particularly of the tsunami as it was actually happening.

I told the students that this is going to allow scientists to learn a lot about tsunamis, and will certainly help us improve the computer modeling and prediction instruments that drive tsunami warning systems around the world. 

Sure enough, today I found this AFP (Agence France-Presse) news story about the reaction of Australian tsunami researchers to seeing the footage. "I think the impact of the waves going across and spreading well inland on relatively flat terrain was something that we’ve never seen before," Australian tsunami expert Ray Canterford told AFP. He added that while scientists had made progress on predicting tsunamis since the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean disaster in which some 220,000 people died, there was still work to be done. "There has been progress but it’s very unfortunate for the Japanese, who are probably one of the most tsunami-ready countries in the world, to be impacted like this—it’s just so tragic," he said.

Australian Bureau of Meteorology scientist Diana Greenslade said the footage from Japan, which showed houses and buildings being swept up in the torrent of water racing inland, would be of deep interest to scientists studying tsunamis. Scientists typically have calculated the size and force of tsunami waves by measuring the tides, and then going into tsunami-hit zones after the waves have passed to measure how far the water penetrated inland. "The amount of video from this one, especially the one from the helicopter where you can actually see the wave front inundating onto the land is just exactly what we need to be able to verify (and adjust) our models," Greenslade said. 

The Japanese people will be dealing with the after effects of this three-part disaster - earthquake + tsunami + nuclear accident - for a long, long time. For those of us in other parts of the world, we should take this as a fair warning to consider our own earthquake/tsunami preparedness, and to evaluate the safety of our own nuclear energy generating plants. Scientists cannot predict when or exactly where earthquakes will happen. The only thing that we can be sure of is that they WILL happen. Planning and practicing our emergency procedures, as families, schools, and communities, will help to keep us all safer in the future.


Posted by: Seymour Simon

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