State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Lessons from the Japan Earthquake

Earthquake and Tsunami damage, Japan-March 14, 2011: This is a satellite image of Japan showing damage after an Earthquake and Tsunami. (credit: DigitalGlobe)

In the two and a half weeks since a massive earthquake struck Japan, scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have been immersed in both studying the quake, and reaching out to the media and other organizations to explain what happened. Other Earth Institute experts have added their voices to the public conversation about natural hazards, preparedness and nuclear power.

Can we ever be prepared enough for such events? The Japanese were as experienced as any people on the planet when it comes to dealing with earthquakes. Yet they were caught off-guard by a once-in-a-thousand-year event. In a matter of hours, that same event washed ashore on the U.S. West Coast, a relatively minor reminder that we, too, may not always be ready when the power of natural forces takes charge.

The Great Japan Earthquake: Where Did Scientists Go Wrong? from Earth Institute on Vimeo.

The jolt in Japan stunned even scientists who’ve studied earthquakes all their lives. Chris Scholz, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory professor with decades of experience looking at how earthquakes work, said he had thought a 9.0 magnitude quake like the one that struck near Sendai, Japan, was “impossible” in that area (see video). But it turns out the last comparable earthquake shook the same region in the year 869 and pushed a tsunami miles into the interior. Scientists were humbled by the realization that they simply had not looked back far enough to gauge the probability of such a huge event.

Japan continues to struggle with the painful aftermath, mourning its dead and battling to bring the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactors under control. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the tragic sequence of events has revived the debate over the safety of nuclear power in the U.S. A new report from the National Research Council contends the U.S. is unprepared for a disaster on the scale experienced by Japan, particularly in vulnerable urban areas.

The earthquake sparked interest in the seismology of the New York region in particular, and the risk of a large earthquake here. A 2008 paper published by four Lamont scientists says that the region is more prone to seismic activity than previously thought. That in turn has stirred concern over the location of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., a short trip up the Hudson River from New York City.

Lamont scientists have held a series of briefings with aides to the local congressional delegation; representatives from Consolidated Edison; and a special meeting of the Environment and Energy and Public Safety Committees of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

They’ve also been contacted by scores of media outlets and added their expertise to continuing reports in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and online sites. For more on the coverage, look to special pages on the Japan earthquake and its aftermath at the Earth Institute and Lamont-Doherty.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

[…] Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists have been working to understand the forces behind the re… […]

5 years ago

Another method for seismic retrofittingof structures is covering the damaged area with FRP materials which has gained notable acceptance from the civil engineering community in recent years. FRP composite materials possess superior mechanical properties including:
Impact resistance.
Ability to carry loads.