Earthquake prone regions, take note.

In the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes on record, and the most severe in Japan for more than 100 years, it is becoming obvious that the careful planning, pioneering engineering and architectural technology and the sensible and ubiquitous public education of the Japanese populace has saved many lives, homes and places of work. Tragically there will still be considerable loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, industry and houses. However, in the wake of an earthquake of this magnitude (currently measured at 8.9 Mw by to the British Geological Survey) some fatalities are sadly unavoidable despite the most meticulous planning and building and engineering regulation.

Mw in this instance refers to the Moment magnitude scale, a dimensionless number that represents how much potential energy (stored in the crust as stress) is converted into mechanical energy by the thrust faulting of the plates. This energy is released as heat, cracks and radiatied seismic energy. The Mw scale is logarithmic in nature; a single step up in magnitude represents a 101.5 increase in the amount of energy released. A magnitude 9.0 quake is therefore 1000 times more powerful than a 7.0 Mw event (where two steps results in a factor of 103 increase in energy released).

Japan is a country more prepared to deal with a quake of this magnitude than most others as its position on the extremely active subduction zone between the Eurasian, North American and Pacific plates ensures that earthquakes are a constant threat. The effect of the stringent building regulations and revolutionary architectural technology in place in Japanese cities are evident in currently available reports of only relatively minor building collapse and failure across the country, despite the severity of this quake being some 8000 times greater than that of the February earthquake that wrought such significant architectural and structural damage across New Zealand’s second city of Christchurch. The true scale of the damage caused by the earthquake and it’s subsequent tsunami, currently making landfall in Hawaii as I type, is not yet apparent and it will likely take days or weeks to assess, but solace should be sought in the fact that the death toll in Japan will be significantly less than it could have been.

Earthquake prone areas, like California, perched atop the San Andreas fault for example, should take note of how the Japanese authorities deal with the aftermath of this disaster as they are arguably the world’s most earthquake aware country, and their response will hopefully set a precedent for emergency earthquake and tsunami relief across the world.

In the meantime, people lucky enough to be unaffected by this disaster are urged to show support and sympathy for the victims and survivors of this historical seismic event. Whilst praying is commendable as a means of increasing empathy and solidarity with the Japanese people, it ultimately of little practical use. Instead, concerned individuals should donate money to any number of relief organisations such as the Red Cross disaster fund. At this early stage a specific Japan relief fund has yet to be set up.

What should definitely be avoided is pseudo-scientific, fallacious and frankly ridiculous speculation as to the cause of the disaster, such as this article in the British tabloid paper the Daily Mail. In this fine example of quackery, astrologers claim that the increased gravitational effect of the moon, dubbed for some reason a ‘supermoon’ despite not being structurally or physically any different to the normal Moon but slightly closer in its orbit around the Earth than normal, contributed to the severity of the quake. Not only is this argument fundamentally flawed, its timing and delivery are insensitive and the level of ignorance portrayed by this ‘journalist’ is frankly offensive. The article juxtaposes sensible commentary from earthquake scientists at the British Geological Survey with astrological mumbo-jumbo and I fear that the lay-public will perceive that these are theories on equal footing, when in fact they most certainly are not. Now is not the time to speculate on such ridiculous and unfounded ‘theories’. The science behind plate tectonics and seismology is sound, empirically testable and respected and in this case explains the causes of this disaster in clear, evidence based terms.

In the coming weeks and months the true magnitude of this disaster will become apparent, as the death toll mounts and the economic damage is calculated. However, now is the time for the world to be united in solidarity, sympathy and support for the people of Japan, but to remember that many survivors owe their lives to the sensible and meticulous planning of the Japanese authorities, their foresight and the life-saving technologies incorporated into the fabric of the architecture and infrastructure of the country.

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