The Japanese earthquake which measured 8.9 is being called one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, but Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University, said that “this is our wake up call.”
“This is an earthquake of the same type, with about the same magnitude and proximity that we face here in the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone,” Yeats said. “What you are seeing in Japan today is what you will also see in our future. Except they are better prepared than we are.”
The earthquake which hit Japan took place on a subduction zone, a point on the planet where one tectonic plate is slowly moving in underneath another.
One of the world’s leading experts on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Chris Goldfinger, a marine geologist at Oregon State University, is currently in Tokyo, attending a meeting, ironically, on the Sumatra earthquake of 2004.
“I’m in the northern outskirts of Tokyo and rode through the quake and continuous aftershocks ever since,” said Goldfinger, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “The main shock lasted an entire five minutes. We were in the middle of a talk and just bailed and went outside. Here in Chiba, you could literally feel the plates grinding; the high-frequency P-wave arrival was like nothing I’ve ever felt.
“Then five minutes of S-waves and feeling sort of seasick,” he added. “There hasn’t been too much damage in Tokyo that I’ve seen, but watching the tsunami come in live on television in Sendai and Iwaki – with ships washing into the town – was amazing.”
The devastation and horrific loss of life in Japan is nothing compared to what it could have been if the country was not one of, if not the leading country in earthquake preparedness. Everything about Japan is built to withstand earthquakes, and public education and scientific initiative date back to the late 1800’s.
According to Harry Yeh, a professor of engineering at OSU and an internationally recognized expert on tsunami propagation, “Japanese television repeatedly mentioned the idea [of vertical evacuation] and led people to evacuate to strong concrete buildings on the third floor or higher.”
“It’s too early to tell if vertical evacuation on a large scale would be effective in a massive earthquake such as this, though I did see many people evacuated to the top of buildings – for example, Sendai Airport and some school buildings,” Yeh said.
Those predisposed towards findings signs of the end of the world will be looking at the Japanese earthquake as yet more evidence of their views, but according to Yeats, the past decade hasn’t really been all that significant in a historic sense.
“It’s not completely regular, there are a few clusters of disasters at some times more than others,” Yeats said. “But the real message here is that the Earth is very active and sometimes violent, it always has been and always will be. We can’t predict these events so we have to prepare for them.”
A Good Rehearsal
Experts at Oregon State University and across the Pacific Northwest are learning as much as they can from each earthquake that takes place the world over, in hopes to raise awareness in their own neck of the woods and increase preparedness.
“This is a good rehearsal for us,” said Solomon Yim, a professor of ocean engineering at OSU and director of the university’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, which includes one of the world’s most sophisticated wave basins specifically designed to study tsunamis. “The take home message is that what just happened in Japan is going to happen here. It’s just devastating.
“The forces you’re seeing in Japan are similar to what happened in Indonesia,” Yim said. “You saw cars and boats and debris slamming into structures and bridges, those are the types of forces we need to learn more about in building tsunami resistant structures.”