Preparing for the Big One

Apr 25, 2016

By The Economist

The giant tectonic plates which make up Earth’s outermost layer are always on the move, sliding past and colliding with each other. This creates plenty of seismic activity, especially in the area around the Pacific Ocean known as the “Ring of Fire”, which accounts for some 90% of the world’s earthquakes. On April 14th a magnitude 6.2 tremor shook Kumamoto prefecture on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Then, in the early hours of the morning on April 16th, a magnitude 7.0 quake struck the same area. On the same day, on the opposite side of the ring, a coastal region of Manabí and Esmeraldas provinces in Ecuador was shaken violently by a magnitude 7.8 quake—15 times stronger in terms of the energy released than the second Japanese quake. In Japan more than 40 people died; in Ecuador the death toll is expected to exceed 525.

The greatest risk posed by earthquakes on land comes from buildings collapsing. Whether or not they fall down depends both on circumstance and on how they are built. This was evident in both disasters. In Ecuador, traditional homes made largely from bamboo withstood the quake better because of their flexibility. The more affluent, living in buildings made of concrete, were less lucky as walls, floors and roofs collapsed (as pictured above). In Mashiki, a town hard hit by the two Japanese earthquakes, dozens of traditional wooden homes collapsed, along with the community’s Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. But among them stands a more recent house that remains unscathed, rather like a gleaming tooth among otherwise rotten gums. Inside, recounts its relieved elderly owner, her cups and saucers were flung around but the house stood firm.

Last one standing

That solitary house underlines one of the most successful ways to protect against seismic activity. The most important part of Japan’s approach remains its stringent building code, says Naoshi Hirata of the Earthquake Research Institute (ERI) at the University of Tokyo.

For decades Japan has tightened its construction codes—by now the world’s strictest—and supported other innovations in quake-proofing construction methods. All buildings constructed after 1981 had to be sturdy enough to withstand collapse in an earthquake with an intensity of “upper 6” or higher on the scale used by the Japan Meteorological Agency (which measures shaking at individual points whereas magnitude measures the size of an earthquake). The regulations were strengthened again after the quake that hit Kobe in 1995, which had a magnitude of 6.8.

Those building regulations have sharply reduced both the rate of collapsed structures and the risk of fires spreading. When the March 2011 earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Tohoku it was the ensuing tsunami that wrecked the coastal region, setting off a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant. Most newer buildings withstood the shaking, which was somewhat attenuated by the time the seismic waves reached land.

Ecuador introduced stricter seismic regulations of its own after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. But there are problems. Hugo Yepes, a geophysicist at the National Polytechnical University in Quito, complains that builders and developers have been largely ignoring them and that local officials have effectively “legalised” informal new neighbourhoods without insisting on anti-seismic standards. When visiting the area, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, said building standards had to be applied with greater rigour to avoid a similar scale of destruction in the future.


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4 comments on “Preparing for the Big One

  • @OP – Ecuador introduced stricter seismic regulations of its own after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. But there are problems. Hugo Yepes, a geophysicist at the National Polytechnical University in Quito, complains that builders and developers have been largely ignoring them and that local officials have effectively “legalised” informal new neighbourhoods without insisting on anti-seismic standards. When visiting the area, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, said building standards had to be applied with greater rigour to avoid a similar scale of destruction in the future.

    The effects of ignorance, capitalist corner cutting, corruption, anti-regulation politics, lack of respect for science or enforcement of engineering codes, and religious wish thinking, are regularly demonstrated in the natural world which works to the laws of science!

    The usual religious diagnosis of the cause the problems, is “lack of prayer, lack of attendance at churches/mosques, and lack of adherence to dogmas about sex!



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  • Humans seem incapable of taking seriously any catastrophe except ones in progress. But even climate change is not dramatic enough to get people off their butts. I can just hear them “Why didn’t you tell me?”



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  • I live in the area expected to get the next 9.0 megaquake any time now – the Pacific Northwest. Western Washington state is also riddled with surface faults that have generated quakes within the last few hundred years that have lifted parts of the Puget Sound shoreline 20 feet and dropped entire forests to the bottom of Lake Washington. We live in the shadow of massive active volcanoes. Yet, even with all the warnings and all the debate about whether recent forecasts of damage and casualties are hyperbolic or not, Seattle went ahead with its plans for an underground viaduct along the waterfront to replace an aging elevated freeway.

    Yep. Underground. Along the waterfront. A waterfront that is lined with old brick buildings and structures built on old piers over the water. A waterfront that shook like Jello in the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001 – the earthquake that severely damaged the old Alaskan Way viaduct that the tunnel is replacing. We don’t have anything even remotely similar to the earthquake building codes that Japan does. And then there’s the tsunami risk. I’m of the opinion that city planners throughout the region should be forced to watch videos of the scenes of epic destruction from Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami every day, before they approve a single structure.



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  • The giant tectonic plates which make up Earth’s outermost layer are
    always on the move, sliding past and colliding with each other. This
    creates plenty of seismic activity, especially in the area around the
    Pacific Ocean known as the “Ring of Fire”, which accounts for some 90%
    of the world’s earthquakes.

    This sounds spectacular and of course is a tragedy for those living in earthquake prone areas. However, the eventual disaster caused by overpopulation will be far worse than a few magnitude 7+ earthquakes. The world is just too large for people to envision the extreme and disastrous difficulties that our population growth will cause. It is truly sad to see the nation’s leaders, famous news commentators, and the extremely wealthy look so wise and serious but are oblivious and ignorant of the terrible and inevitable results overpopulation will cause.



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