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March 12, 2011

Annals of Denial

In less than 48 hours since an 8.9 megaquake rocked Japan on Thursday evening (Friday afternoon their time), it has produced a huge tsunami that came ashore about 20 minutes later on the main Japanese Island of Honshu approximately 230 miles NE of Tokyo and nearly obliterated the city of Sendai (population 1 million).

In stark contrast the the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, this one affected an industrialized high-tech nation with the third largest economy and ninth largest population in the world. Japan is also the nation with the most tsunami experience (it's a unique Japanese word).Therefore it played a key role in developing the Pacific Ocean’s tsunami early warning system, (a system sadly lacking in the Indian Ocean in 2004) thus it had early notice; but, because of the strength of the earthquake and Sendai’s location on a coastal plain on the Pacific side of the Ou mountain range, there was little opportunity to mitigate the worst of the tsunami’s damage. On a more positive note, Japan's world-class earthquake preparedness, whetted by the Kobe disaster of 1995, undoubtedly reduced the mortality and morbidity that would have otherwise been produced by building collapse following such a huge quake.

Also, thanks to Japan’s saturation with video and communication technology, the tsumami was soon being shown by CNN on local Bay Area TV almost in real time. That was likely why I overreacted to the near-certainty of a series trans-Pacific waves, for which arrival times began appearing on the internet shortly after midnight, local time. As it turned out, because the major direction of the energy generated (as determined by the obliquity of the undersea fault) was more to the Southeast than due East, the continental US was spared a major hit.

It now appears that the biggest risk to both Japan and the world may be the combined disaster's as-yet unknown effects on Japan’s nuclear reactors, five of which are overheating and about which officials are being typically close-mouthed (shades of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl). Probably because no government likes admitting mistakes, either in policy or in execution, there is a collateral tendency for all to minimize death and damage reports early on. Hopefully the Japanese authorities responsible for its nuclear program can solve their core overheating problems before too long, but we can't count on it.

Because my research has convinced me that humans tend to favor denial to the extent possible and our failing drug war is a particularly florid example, I tend to be pessimistic.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 12, 2011 08:07 PM