March 12th, 2011


Japan: A Geologic and Disasterologists Perspective

While watching the news today about the disaster in Japan I had one of those moments that just put the whole magnitude of the tragedy into perspective. There was a shot of a passenger train lying on its side partially buried in the mud. On any given day a story about a train derailment where possibly 100's were killed would have been the lead story. Today that is just one small fragment of such a larger story. The only time I could think where that was also true was 9/11. A news person made a comment that on a "normal" day the story of one air crash would be a major story. Here there were 4 crashes in the span of a few hours and yet it was just part of a much larger story.

I have mentioned many times in this LJ that I am somewhat of a "diasterologist." I have been studying major disasters ever since I was a little boy. Perhaps it was all of those Irwin Allen movies that I saw, but something about a massive loss of life has always fascinated me. In one sense it was the study of the small consequences that somehow added up to some massive failure, something akin to the "Butterfly Effect." In another sense it was just the fascination of the rolling dice of chance that defines that slim line between life and death. Mostly it was the awe of the power of nature and how puny Man can be when confronted with an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado.

I think what defines this disaster is that it was captured almost live on t.v. Prior to the mid-20th century, disasters were defined by pictures that were taken after the event. As technology evolved, the news was brought to us in a more timely fashion. Now that everyone has some sort of recording device on the person at all times, the likelihood of an event getting captured as it happened is very high. A tsunami would be incomprehensible to most people unless you have lived through one. The footage from Indonesia a few years ago changed that and after yesterday we all have a better idea about the utter destructive power that is possible with such an event.

For the past 30 years I have had in my possession what I have called the "disaster Bible." It is a book titled "Darkest Hours" which is an encyclopedia of disasters up to the 1970's. I have read it cover to cover over the years. When it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, what has just occurred is nothing new at all. I recalled a tsunami that happened on June 15, 1896. The story was tragic because people perceived the earthquake to be small and returned to the beach area for a celebration after initially leaving for fear of a tsunami. The death toll was 22,000.

In looking through the index of earthquake deaths in Japan, this type of event is really nothing out of the ordinary. I see numerous events where tsunamis have killed 10's of thousands of people. I hope this event makes all of us who live in areas prone to this type of disaster to sit up and take notice.