Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About the Earthquake in Japan

First off…now in Jacksonville, FL, and that is where I shall be for awhile, so expect more insights on hurricanes and thunderstorms as the warm season gets going. New job affords me more time to look at weather data, but less free time, so we’ll see what kind of balance I can maintain going forward.

First off, my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone and everyone impacted by this unspeakable tragedy in Japan. It truly is a horrific disaster, and we all can only hope they can recover as quickly as possible. You’ve all seen the videos, read the stories, etc. I’m not going to get too wordy here, but I have heard a few odds and ends here and there that have sort of irked me the last few days. I’m not a geologist, nor am I a seismologist. I am a meteorologist, though we used to joke in TV that we were supposed to know every field of science because we were the only ones in the station with a legitimate science degree. I digress. Let’s discuss a couple points.

Myth: A tsunami can only occur on the West Coast of the U.S.

I actually heard a nuclear expert say on TV tonight that the East Coast isn’t susceptible to tsunamis. And while the East Coast certainly doesn’t see the frequency of tsunami events that the West Coast sees, history tells us that they have occurred…and they could be substantial. The Capital Weather Gang actually published an entry today with a lot of details on past East Coast events. I won’t recite them all here, but you can click the link and read for yourself. And the NWS in Philly has a really good timeline of past events and details. Landslides off the coast in the Continental Shelf, landslides elsewhere, or a large earthquake in the Caribbean (Lesser Antilles subduction zone) would be the primary culprits for such an event on the East Coast. But they can happen, and you should be aware that they can happen.

Hype: The nuclear power disaster unfolding in Japan could happen here too.

Without getting into the debate of whether nuclear power is good or bad, suffice to say this: Yes, we do have nuclear plants in the Western US in vulnerable areas. However, keep this in mind: The nuclear plants in Japan survived the earthquake. They did as they were supposed to do during the quake, which is not crumble. They did not however survive the tsunami. And that’s where a lot of the focus on the current nuke plants on the West Coast should be made. In California, San Onofre, in between LA and San Diego is a concern, as is Diablo Canyon (Avila Beach). However, both of these plants are equipped with extremely sophisticated technology and able to withstand earthquakes of very powerful magnitude that can occur in those areas.  San Onofre is on the coast and has a wall designed to withstand a 25 foot tsunami. The LA Times had an article today specifically about San Onofre. So with all this in mind, yes this is a serious issue that needs to be revisited, but again, keep in mind that you aren’t going to see a 9.0 earthquake centered in SoCal. In general, northern California is at a much higher risk than SoCal for a tsunami as well.

This is Another Chernobyl

No it is not. Chernobyl had a number of extenuating circumstances that compounded its disaster. All you need to know is here. That being said, that’s not minimizing the magnitude of this disaster or how bad it could get. But these are two completely different scenarios.

Myth: The Japan Earthquake Could Not Happen Here

You probably won’t see anything quite as strong as 9.0 occur on the Mainland of the US, though, yes, we can and will see large earthquakes occur. But an earthquake of the magnitude observed in Japan could occur off the Northwest Coast. The culprit would be the Cascadia Subduction Zone. If you live in the Northwest or have friends/loved ones in the Northwest, make sure they are fully aware that what occurred in Japan WILL one day occur there. It could be tomorrow, or it could be in 200 years. We simply don’t know, but the geology is similar. And we’re not prepared for it. Make sure they/you get prepared as best as you can.

Seattle Times Article

Cascadia Subduction Zone Info

This is just a sampling of the flash points I’ve come up with based on what I’ve read and heard over the last couple days. Hope this helps clear the air a little.

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3 thoughts on “Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About the Earthquake in Japan”

  1. It is my understanding that Seismologist’s said a 9.0 couldn’t happen where it just did. So, for you to say it can’t happen off SoCal ( and not being a seismologist) where does this thought come from?
    Not trying to be a wiseguy, just wondering ……..

    1. I don’t think it was necessarily assumed that that area could not generate an 8.5+ quake. In fact past history had assumed there was an 8.6 magnitude quake in that same area. Now, I don’t know what the going set of assumptions were…from what I’ve read it was surprising to them that this particular section of the subduction zone was capable of something larger than an 8.5. The reason why I say it can’t happen off SoCal, is that there is nothing that has been discovered that would assume anything greater than a 7.5 would ever occur off SoCal. The plates shift inland there, but are exposed off the Northern California coast, so you can have a subduction zone quake up there that could register 8-8.5+. But the geography of the coast in Southern California make it much different than either Japan or Northern California. Anything can happen of course, but there is no information or research that currently exists that would suggest that is possible in SoCal.

      FYI, if you’re curious, here’s a website that has an interactive map of all the faults in Southern California: http://www.data.scec.org/faults/faultmap.html

  2. Superb synopsis with rational clarification. All of which was discussed in the media but terribly bogged down in the emotional coverage of the event. Plain science. Give us answers. Had Japan utilized a gravity-fed back-up cooling system, then the need for electric power or gas engines would have been eliminated. We have learned so much from this.

    Keep us enlightened.

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