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Japan 2011 Shifting Scales – Time and Space

The dramatic events of the last few days unfolding in Japan have definitely also had an impact on how we assess safety risk and stability. As the rescue and stabilisation operations are still in progress the full extend of the disaster is not as of yet to conclude. The scale of the destruction is massive, especially through the tsunami that followed the earthquake and which has basically washed away the whole North East coast.

Mappings are under way, from Google to open source projects. ABC news has put together, similar to the version of the Australian flooding, a before and after documentation. Etire villages and towns are flattened, the buildings simply gone. The force of the water can be seen in videos pushing houses down the road. An incredible force, something not imaginable and certainly not expected.

Japan 2011 tsunami
Image taken from Ann Fischer / Japan flag as a red ball with the tsunami wave rendered in 3d onto it. Data used from the NOAA image showing the expected wave hight.

The events have jumped out of scale very early on. The earth quake was the larges in Japan’s recorded history. But in many other ways, is has also shifted scales. The dimensions with the multiplication of the earthquake and the tsunami and now, as a result the looming nuclear emergency.

On a very spatial scale the earthquake had shifted the whole of the Japanese coast line by some 2.4 meters. Who said the land is a constantly stable entity? It is unclear what the impact of this movement and remapping and redrawing the coast lines might be the simplest task. Infrastructure has definitely been hit hardest, the rigid installations of roads, train lines, bridges, pipes and cables. To what extend there will bean impact on navigation both on land and in the air is not as of yet clear. “At this point, we know that one GPS station moved (8 feet), and we have seen a map from GSI (Geospatial Information Authority) in Japan showing the pattern of shift over a large area is consistent with about that much shift of the land mass,” said Kenneth Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Japan is located on the Ring of Fire, the falt line around the Pacific Ocean where constant earth movement result in hundreds of earthquakes a year. However this scale is ver unusual and the 2011-03-11 earthquake was the strongest ever recorded in the history of the country.
Because of the location Japan is putting in a lot of effort to be prepared, probably Japan is the best prepared nation on earth for the case of an earthquake. At this scale however things are a bit different, it is simply overwhelming and complications pile in.

This event of course also draws attempts to compare to earlier events and history is once more unrolled. There is a lot to uncover and the Japanese disaster history is long and the society pretty battered with events, in this sense a very strong nation always has been able to cope with the most dramatic of events.

Kobe earthquake 1995
Image taken from Wikipedia / The Great Hanshin earthquake, or Kobe earthquake, was an earthquake that occurred on Tuesday, January 17, 1995, at 05:46 JST (16 January at 20:46 UTC) in the southern part of Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. It measured 6.8 on the moment magnitude scale (USGS),[1] and Mj7.3 (adjusted from 7.2) on JMA magnitude scale.[2] The tremors lasted for approximately 20 seconds. The focus of the earthquake was located 16 km beneath its epicenter,[2] on the northern end of Awaji Island, 20 km away from the city of Kobe.

There are definitely two, that immediately draw up to this most recent one. The first one is the Kobe earthquake that destroyed the central part of Japan around Kobe on January 17 in 1995. The vast devastation included around 200’000 buildings the port of Kobe and large sections of an express way. The nation was unprepared and the disaster coincided with a economical down period making it even the more difficult to get the recovery on track.

The second event, also in relation to the unfolding nuclear aftermath of the distaster is the much older, but nevertheless very present, nuclear attack on Nagasaki and Hiroshima on August 9, 1945 and Monday, August 6, 1945 respectively. The attack not only destroyed with devastating impact the whole area, but contaminated the wider region. The impact reached far beyond structural damage and with long term effect through the radiation had vast social and psychological effects.

Japan 2011 and Nagasaki
Image taken from News Flick / Above: A destroyed landscape in Otsuchi village, Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. Below: Nagasaki following the August 9, 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb “Fat Man”.

All these events drag through parallels of disaster and trauma mix up the times and pull these events closer together ignoring the usually in linear fashion imagined timeline. Are we going in circles.

Of corse int his context another event is very present, the Chernobyl nuclear accident on the 26 of April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR. With Japan now struggling to bring the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was badly damaged during the earthquake under controle these memories and experiences come back to live. In fact telling from the government reactions through out the world, especially Germany and Switzerland, but also Russia and the EU, nuclear energy was considered save and sound. Probably it was secretly being promoted as the solution for many countries to the global warming and sustainability programs. No one really was in the game with a large majority to lobby against the very powerful nuclear energy consortiums. Many countries have only recently revoken legislations to abandonne nuclear energy, such as Germany or Italy in 2008. Most countries are now however, revising and revisiting their active plants and plans for new ones. The recent events in this sense were a sudden wake up call with a good stirrup of settled perspectives and believes.

Clearly this goes way beyond just Japan. The impact on many levels from economy to energy are global. Technology is save and well developed but only to some extend. Nuclear energy production has changed since and because of the Chernobyl disaster, but still a large number of reactors currently running are dated, were built in the seventies and eighties. The earthquake has also, according to calculations by the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy shifted the planet on its axis by nearly 10 centimeters. Similar movement was reported also from the 2004 Chilenian earthquake in a National Geographic article. “should have shortened an Earth day by 1.26 millionths of a second, according to new computer-model calculations by geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. For comparison, the same model estimated that the magnitude 9 Sumatra earthquake in December 2004 shortened the length of a day by 6.8 millionths of a second.” The Japan earthquake should be in about the same league. Even though this sounds very dramatic experts point out that such changes are part of the constant movement and changes of the planet. These measurements are based on mathematical models and not actual measurements. The changes are presumed to be much too small even for satellites to pick up.

Nevertheless, the fact and especially the idea of the ground moving and with it changing the duration of the day as our basic rhythmic unit is really disturbing. It again points out that there are more interconnections apparent with each event than we usually are capable of perceiving and willing to take into account. In this sense the ongoing development of the disaster in Japan is definitely active on many scales with the power to shift these scales. Rigid structures are moved, ground is shifted, areas contaminated, towns erased. More over, security is destroyed, routines buried and safety washed away. A lot of lives have been lost bringing with it great human tragedies. Whole towns are destroyed and large urban areas such as Tokyo with around 35 million people at risk from the nuclear fall out of the badly damaged power plant.

This sudden dimension shift on spatial but definitely also temporal scales are are considerable part of the extend of the disaster for the individual as much as society, the town as much as the city and the nation as much as the world.

For support and donations Google has installed a central webpage for Japan 2011 support as one of many ways to help.