Following Up on Japan and Media Mismanagement

NOAA HYSPLIT Model Run for Japan, from Dr. Jeff Masters' blog at Wx Underground (http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1767)

A pretty cool link I stumbled upon today allows you to actually listen to the devastating Japan earthquake. The Japanese Lab of Bioacoustics has a network of undersea instruments that allows for this. It’s rather incredible.

Also, here’s a link to a  pretty nifty animation someone’s created that shows the foreshocks, the 9.0, and the subsequent aftershocks pop up in sequential order. Amazing how much seismic activity continues over there. Note that this is not at all uncommon. Most major quakes like this have aftershocks (some that can still be large) continue for weeks, months, or even years after the main shock.

Along the lines of what I wrote about earlier in the week, it’s been incredibly frustrating to read and hear some of the coverage in the media about this incident and what actually should matter to people here (besides the recovery effort and how we all can help). There’s been an intense debate about nuclear energy, which is certainly fine, but I think that needs to wait until after we at least figure out how to solve the issues in Japan.

There continues to be this implied comparison to Chernobyl. Here’s a good link that details the worst nuclear incidents in the world. To this point, this is not Chernobyl. The IAEA rates events (similar to tornadoes and hurricanes) in a seven category scale. Chernobyl is the equivalent of Andrew, Katrina, or Camille. So far to this point, the Fukushima incident ranks as a 5 out of the seven. This is terrible on every level, but again, this is NOT Chernobyl.

There also continues to be a wishy-washy bit of media coverage regarding how radiation will impact Americans. You get headlines like this…even though the article has very little to do with direct radiation impacts in California (it’s mainly discussing how LA is activating a lesson’s learned sort of campaign to help mitigate and prepare in case a similar disaster occurred there). But if you just read the headline, you’d assume that even if there is no direct impact, they’re still concerned enough that they have to activate emergency procedures.

In the New York Times the other day, they put this movie online showing the plume’s path. Their intent was to show people when *trace* amounts of radiation would be detected at various monitoring stations. If you are an ordinary American, with a limited science background, and you look at this movie, what do you see? Radiation coming to America.  Buried on the righthand side in the text at the bottom, it says that it would, “at worst, have extremely minor health consequences.” First off, this needs to be emphasized ON the movie or IN the headline. That’s the MOST important aspect of this imagery. And what do extremely minor health consequences consist of? Honestly. Vagueness is what will cause people to panic.

Then, you just get completely misinformed articles like this that make headlines on Drudge. But truthfully, why shouldn’t they be making headlines? Heck, the surgeon general earlier in the week implied it was intelligent for people in the West to stock up on Potassium Iodide. And of course she meant that it was good to always be prepared for a disaster, but it was implied that they should stock up directly because of THIS incident.

The fact of the matter is, that this is NOT a threat to Americans here at home. There have been a handful of great articles written on this topic. I’ll direct you to a couple of them.

Dr. Greg Forbes of The Weather Channel discussed dispersion and dilution, the main drivers of why this won’t be a major threat.

Dr. Jeff Masters of The Weather Underground has discussed this for several days now. Granted, the headline isn’t putting the focus on what’s important in all this, but he makes a point to emphasize the lack of a health threat.

The biggest issue in all this is communication. Scientists inherently have issues communicating information in a language and a way that ordinary people can relate to. Perception is everything in these types of situations. If people sense any iota of danger to their health, of course they’re going to react. Scientists, politicians, and, most importantly, the media need to get their acts together and make sure the information they are providing is coherent, clear, and important to people. The reports of “trace” radiation, while interesting, don’t matter in the grand scheme of things to an average American.

The prospect of radiation making it to America from Japan is interesting, but it’s an interesting concept for scientists. As an ordinary American, who probably has enough to worry about,  this is one thing you do NOT need to be concerned with. Over the next few weeks though, this whole disaster should serve as a reminder to you that it *can* happen here. Anything can. Look over your plans if a disaster strikes (any disaster…fire, quake, hurricane, tornado, etc.) and make sure it will work (make contingency plans). And if you don’t have a plan, make one. You might be happy you did.

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