TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril

March 17, 2011
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Welcome to TRAFFIC, an exchange of thoughts between leading figures from across the humanities, social science, and natural sciences, whose prescient views on current events help to shape the way we interpret the world around us.
Join us for the two-day exchange TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril on the future of that nation and the larger global consequences, in light of the recent tsunami and earthquake that devastated the Tōhoku region on the Pacific coast, leaving left thousands dead, tens of thousands more imperiled, and a series of nuclear reactors on the brink of partial meltdown. Today, we asked sociologist Lee Clarke, a specialist in technological and organizational failures, with expertise in community response to disaster, and Ronald T. Merrill, a geophysicist and paleomagnetic pioneer, to share their thoughts with us on how they see Japan’s future unfolding:
From Ronald T. Merrill, author of Our Magnetic Earth: The Science of Geomagnetism:
My wife and I lived in Japan most of 1965 while I was studying geophysics. During that time we made many friends, which have subsequently increased in number. We wish them all the best during this tragic time.
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Although somewhat painful, earth scientists can use this tragedy as an opportunity to educate others on earthquakes and tsunamis. Unfortunately, there likely could be more bad news to come. My ‘rule of thumb’ is to expect that another earthquake, about a magnitude smaller than the main shock, could be among the many aftershocks to follow in the coming year or so. Although such an aftershock (around magnitude 8) would have about 30 times less energy than the 9.0 earthquake that struck on March 11 (not the ten times less energy often erroneously given in the popular media), it would still release hundreds of times more energy than did the Hiroshima atomic bomb dropped near the end of World War II. It could also trigger another devastating tsunami.
Although we all hope that this possibility is not realized, we can reflect on what we would do in a similar situation, particularly in Washington State where I live. About 13 subduction earthquakes with magnitude near 9 are estimated to have occurred off our coast during the past 7500 years. The last one occurred in 1700 and was large enough to produce a tsunami that struck Japan with waves several feet tall. Such an earthquake is almost inevitable in our State’s future, even though seismologists do not have the capability of predicting just when this will occur.
In the meantime, everyone living where earthquakes occur should consider how prepared they are: Do you know what to do in the event of an earthquake? Have your bookcases been secured to a wall? Where do you plan to obtain drinking water when your taps fail and none is available to purchase? These questions and others are well worth considering now.
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From Lee Clarke, author of Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Modern Imagination:
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The horrors in Japan reveal the folly of concentration. In Worst Cases, I flagged population concentration as one of the social conditions that gives rise to “globally relevant disasters.” People concentrate themselves in dangerous places and this makes them a target that’s easier to strike when hazards come along. Japan is in the Ring of Fire. So is Indonesia, where 250,000 died in the 2004 tsunami. So are two nuclear plants in California, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre (2 live reactors, 1 dead one, also “spent” nuclear fuel).
Thinking in terms of worst cases isn’t always a bad idea. I’ve taken a little heat, so to speak, over the past five years for advocating “possibilistic thinking.” This heat is mainly from people who didn’t read the book. But if there’d been more of it in Japan maybe they wouldn’t have put the backup generators in the basement. Maybe someone would have said “Well, it’s unlikely but if a tsunami rolls in we want to have the cooling system well above sea level; the consequences could be really bad.”
We flaunt our vulnerabilities to powerful forces like the atom, the sea, tectonic plates, and organizational failures, to great peril. Hubris is at the root of many of our vulnerabilities. As I wrote in Worst Cases, “Hubris enables people to push the envelope, to build things never before built, and to think of things never before thought.” Hubris can help the audacious imagination. But it can just as easily hurt the impudent one. Here are some examples: thinking the Mississippi River can be controlled indefinitely, presuming New York City is safe from hurricanes, and neglecting the New Madrid fault.

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Join us tomorrow for Part II of TRAFFIC: Japan in Peril, with additional commentary from an ageism expert and Japanese historian on what happens next—and how we might prepare for this future.
For additional information on Lee Clarke’s Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, and Ronald T. Merrill’s Our Magnetic Earth: The Science of Geomagnetism, please visit the University of Chicago Press’s website here.
TRAFFIC is taken from the Arabic taraffaqa, “to walk along slowly together.”
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