Japan’s Impending Killer Quake

“Earthquakes bring out the worst in some people.” —Sgt. Lew Slade, Earthquake (1974)

In A Nutshell

The Tokai earthquake is an event that devastates East Japan around every 110 years. There’s an 87 percent chance another magnitude 8.0 or higher Tokai quake will hit in the next 30 years. (And a 70 percent chance it will happen before 2016.) It’s expected to cause upwards of 11,000 deaths and $1 trillion US dollars in damages.

The Whole Bushel

Japan is a hostage tied to a chair, watching the ticking time bomb on its lap count down to zero.

The Tokai earthquake is an event that devastates East Japan around every 110 years. The last Tokai earthquake in 1854 left thousands dead and destroyed an estimated 10,000 buildings. Japan is overdue for another. The worst-case scenario, envisioned by the government in 2012, is a magnitude 9.1 quake spawning a 34-meter (112 ft) tsunami off the coast of south Tokyo. Such an event would result in over 300,000 deaths, scientists warn.

There is special concern over the Hamaoka nuclear plant located in Tokyo’s neighboring Shizuoka prefecture, which is where the shaking is expected to be worst. It lies near the ocean—just like Fukushima—and Japan is worried that when the Tokai quake inevitably hits, it will be similar scenario.

For once though, good sense won out. After Japan’s March 11 earthquake, Japan’s prime minister called for a suspension of the plant’s operation until appropriate countermeasures could be built against a tsunami like the one that crippled Fukushima’s plant. Among other safety measures being implemented, the plant’s flood wall is being raised to 22 meters (72 ft) in order to prevent a tsunami from causing a meltdown.

Yet even should the plant prove safe against the Tokai quake, there’s an additional concern that could likely lead to a second national disaster. The iconic Mt. Fuji may be the pride of Japan, but it’s also an active volcano. Now, stick-your-head-in-the-sand logic tells us that since Mt. Fuji hasn’t erupted in 300 years, then it’s probably not going to anytime soon. However, the last eruption was caused by an earlier Tokai quake that unsettled its magma chamber.

The current pressure in Fuji’s magma chamber has been steadily building since the last eruption that blew three gigantic holes in its sides. The pressure has reached 1.6 megapascals–higher than it was at the time of the last eruption. Only 0.1 megapacals is needed for a volcano to erupt, making Mt. Fuji sixteen times over the minimum amount needed to spew volcanic ash over East Japan.

After the 2011 Tohoku eruption, the world’s eyes were on Fukushima’s nuclear plant to see if things would escalate into another Chernobyl. Everyone’s eyes except the Japan Meteorological Agency, whose attention was locked fast on Mt. Fuji to see if the shake-up had dislodged anything that would spawn an eruption. In preparation, Japan has already started forming massive evacuation plans that extend as far away as Tokyo.

Japan is taking the impending Tokai quake extremely seriously. A board of senior seismologists is in place to warn the public of a quake hours, if not days, in advance. New buildings are built to withstand the quake, and old ones are being renovated with quake-resistant technology. Even the Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed commuter rail, has a faster braking system in preparation for the disaster.

Still, despite all these preventative measures, plans were proposed to create an area in West Japan where government functions could be moved in the event of a catastrophic collapse. The idea was that when the worse does happen, the government could temporarily relocate until the capital was rebuilt. The “back-up” Tokyo was initially met with mixed feelings though, and it seems nothing ever became of it. Still, that such a plan was even proposed tells you just how much this quake could mix things up.

Show Me The Proof

Two Years After Fukushima, Japan Worries About the Next Big Quake
Japan prepares relocation of capital if devastating quake hits Tokyo
Mount Fuji ‘under more pressure than last eruption’
Response to request to suspend operations at Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station
Press Conference by Prime Minister Naoto Kan—Friday, May 6, 2011