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University News

Panelists offer perspective on earthquake and effects

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A panel of four professors with expertise relating to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami met yesterday evening to ask how a country should preemptively prepare for an event that may or may not happen — but could have a catastrophic effect. In front of a half-full MacMillan 115, the professors gave an account of the science behind the recent disaster and how the question of “money versus likelihood” affected preventive measures in Japan.

Kerry Smith, associate professor of history and East Asian studies, outlined the geography of Japan, stressing its extensive coastline, to explain why the effects of the tsunami were so devastating. The shoreline is relatively flat up to the mountain ranges about 10 miles in, he said, so there are no high mountains or cliffs to stop the waves of the tsunami, and it “doesn’t take much” to get past the coast.

The panelists said Japan had some of the most effective preventive measures in place, but the force of the March 11 earthquake — which had one of the highest magnitudes on the Richter scale in history — was devastating.

Japan had built sea barriers to protect against tsunamis, one of which — the deepest breakwater in the world — was completed in 2009. But “the amount of concrete and money poured into this project … was essentially proved pointless” as the waves swept over the wall, Smith said. Though the barriers were constructed to withstand the significant height of tsunamis, the amount of water and sheer force of the tsunami were enough to overcome the walls.

Smith briefly spoke about the casualties, though he said he did not want to appear “callous” in defining the tragedy of this event in terms of numbers. To offer a “sobering sense of the dimensions of this disaster,” Smith said the population of the United States is two and a half times that of Japan, and Hurricane Katrina caused 1,800 casualties, compared to an estimate by the Japanese government Monday that the tsunami resulted in 8,800 deaths and over 12,000 missing.

Terry Tullis, professor emeritus of geological sciences, addressed the technical aspects of the earthquake and Karen Fischer, professor of geological sciences, explained the tsunami. Tullis and Fischer said when the earthquake occurred deep underwater 120 kilometers offshore, the stress accumulation built up, pushing up on the ocean water and moving it upward and outward. Though the waves started off only one meter high, they were very long. The movement of the water approaching the shore compressed the waves, increasing amplitude and speed, and decreasing length.

Fischer said though a warning was issued just three minutes after the earthquake, it took only 15 minutes for the tsunami to reach land, leaving a mere 12 minutes  for people in the most vulnerable areas to reach safety. She showed a CNN video of the water washing away all structures in its way.

An audience member asked the geologists what good their work was if, despite being so prepared, Japan was still unable to protect the population. Being adequately prepared is a question of “how much money you’re willing to spend and whether you can politically convince people if you should prepare for an unlikely event,” Tullis said. In Japan, it is obvious to everyone that they are sitting on a “plate” and the “national psyche is much more willing to put resources into” preparation than, for example, people designing building codes in Haiti, Tullis said.

George Seidel, professor emeritus of physics, gave the technical details of nuclear reactors and what happened to the Fukushima power plant. “The consequences of the disaster of the reactors are very serious,” he said, but “on the scale of things, this is minimal” compared to the earthquake and tsunami. The reactors affect a few workers whose lives will be potentially shortened, but that number is smaller than the number affected by the natural disasters.

Seidel also discussed how the coverage is being handled by the media — of the five articles he saw on the Japanese disaster in Tuesday’s New York Times, five dealt with the nuclear reactors and only one discussed the actual geological disaster.

Smith asked the audience if they knew people in Japan who had been in contact with them about how the disaster is affecting their lives. One student whose parents and brother live in Japan said there is a discrepancy in reactions to the earthquake between people in Japan who read international media who are very concerned, and those who read only Japanese newspapers, who are calmer.

Smith said he thought the Japanese are probably underreacting the Western media is probably overreacting and the truth is probably somewhere in between.

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