March 10, 2011


There's been a magnitude 8.8 earthquake off the coast of Honshu, next to Sendai. Tsunami alert for the whole Pacific basin. Massive damage in Japan from the quake, even reports of damage in Tokyo, and lots more damage from the tsunami.

This is going to be really bad.

UPDATE: If the calculation really stays at 8.8, it will be one of the top ten quakes recorded in the last 110 years.

All of which were on the "Ring of Fire". I'm glad that my part of the ring doesn't do huge earthquakes. We just do volcanoes. (Which can also be spectacularly destructive, but they give a lot of warning first.)

UPDATE: Now USGS is saying it was 8.9. And they've been getting pasted with huge aftershocks. One was 7.1 and one was 6.3; quakes that large will have spawned further tsunamis.

UPDATE: Brickmuppet has a big post about this.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Weird World at 10:59 PM | Comments (50) | Add Comment
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1 Hawaii is now on tsunami warning.

How high are you above the river?  I'm assuming that between the great distance from the epicenter, and the shape of the inlet/river, that you probably won't see anything, but it's still something to keep an eye on.

Posted by: BigD at March 11, 2011 12:01 AM (LjWr8)

2 The entire west coast is now on tsunami watch.  They're saying around 0700 PST.

Posted by: BigD at March 11, 2011 12:30 AM (LjWr8)

3 Yeah, I'm watching the coverage on Fox.

This feels like a kick in the stomach.

Posted by: atomic_fungus at March 11, 2011 01:12 AM (oP4Bq)

4 There's a terrifying fire at an oil refinery in Chiba.  Dwarfs the nearby buildings.

Localised evacuation is under way in Hawaii right now - tourists are being told to move half a mile inland or three stories up.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 11, 2011 01:20 AM (PiXy!)

5 They're saying it's the worst earthquake to hit Japan since those official records have been kept... worse than the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (which eventually brought us the aircraft carrier Kaga, but that's another story).

I was stunned by the shots of the tsunami, parts of it on fire, carrying houses, cars, and the like out to sea... or just crushing them (is there anything worse than a flaming tsunami?) on the spot.  Four nuclear plants shut down, one because of possible containment failure?  YEESH.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 11, 2011 05:56 AM (W8Men)


BigD, I'm not in any danger. For anything to happen here, the tsunami would have to go up the Columbia, up the Willamette, up the Tualatin, and into our creek.

Which would require it to go up and over Willamette Falls, among other things.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 06:15 AM (+rSRq)

7 Terrible news. Looking at it on Google Earth, there are a lot of cities and villages right on the coast in the middle of the quakes. Sadly, I fear the correct phrase is now "there were cities and villages there".


Posted by: J Greely at March 11, 2011 08:22 AM (2XtN5)


It's a gift that keeps on giving. Seems like every one of those aftershocks causes another tsunami, so the coast line is getting hit again and again.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 08:51 AM (+rSRq)

9 Looks like the aftershocks are tapering down in terms of intensity, though not in number. But a bunch of them are at level 5 in intensity, which are still quite respectable earthquakes.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 08:54 AM (+rSRq)

10 A 6.6 just hit Nagano and Niigata.

The main quake was a major crustal movement, and whenever something like that happens, it causes (or releases) pressure elsewhere.  So now other areas are giving way, either settling back into "old" positions they were previously forced out of, or being shoved aside by other pieces of the crust being jammed into them. 

It's a bit of a simplistic view, but it will be interesting to hear just how much lateral change in position this resulted in on either side of the faultline.

Posted by: ubu at March 11, 2011 11:31 AM (i7ZAU)

11 Since I don't have a Dish or cable any more, I was forced to go to the antenna to check out the story, and I'm disgusted by the local coverage.  The story and the tragedy is in Japan, but it gets mentioned in passing while they send live crews out to the coast where a massive one foot surge is expected many hours later.  Local radio managed to call the sister of a network employee who lived 220 miles away from the quake, and asked worthless personal/emotional questions: "Were you scared?"

I want to know things like what's the situation, and are they able to deal with it and help/rescue people and recover.  And we're not getting that, we're getting more info instead about a guy on OUR coast who was taking pictures and got washed out to sea.

Posted by: Mauser at March 11, 2011 01:06 PM (cZPoz)


And just now there was a 6.6 in the sea of Japan, northwest of Honshu. The tsunami for that one will hit the west coast, as well as Russia and the Koreas.

Google Earth has been placing tags on the map indicating all the aftershocks, and the area east of Honshu is absolutely tiled with them. There have apparently been more than a hundred aftershocks so far.

Japan is going to keep rattling for a week. Man, I feel bad for them. And I'm cringing about what we're going to hear once news reports really start coming out of Sendai and the surrounding area. The tsunami went like 3km inland in some of those areas.

Japan has the best earthquake and tsunami preparedness in the world, but this tsunami was just too fast. From the time of the quake until the wave hit the shore would have been just a few minutes. The wave moves something like 500 miles an hour, and it's only about 50 miles from the epicenter to the nearest shore.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 01:14 PM (+rSRq)

13 I can't get Narita Airport's site to load, but I see flights going to and from Tokyo at the Kansai airport, so it's probably just heavy traffic.

The Kobe quake that killed ~6,500 was a 6.8 with less aftershocks in a month than this monster has had in hours. And there was apparently no significant tsunami damage, since the epicenter was on an island a few miles offshore in the inland sea.

And no disaster is complete without something stupid happening in California: "A man who was taking pictures of the tsunami waves on the Northern California coast was also swept out to sea and later found dead".

Useful links: Wikipedia, Google Crisis Response.


Posted by: J Greely at March 11, 2011 04:10 PM (2XtN5)


Over at Metafilter, they're saying:

JAL has cancelled 87 domestic and 14 international flights; ANA has cancelled 43 domestic and 18 international flights.

Narita Airport is only open for departing flights; no word on when they will begin accepting arrivals.

There are a hell of a lot of rumors going around, so take it for what it's worth. My guess is that they're not accepting incoming flights at Narita because they're trying to reserve it for disaster relief shipments.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 05:02 PM (+rSRq)


J, where are you supposed to fly to? Were you making a connection at Narita?

With any luck they'll have a lot straightened out by two weeks from now. (With bad luck they'll keep getting earthquakes until then and you might have to cancel your trip.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 05:38 PM (+rSRq)

16 Between the status reports at Kansai, Narita, and JAL, I was able to find flights to and from Narita that went fine, and others that were delayed or canceled. I suspect the cancellations are a combination of reduced capacity due to damage (not all the terminals have been declared safe yet, and the trains aren't running) and traffic shifted from other airports.


Posted by: J Greely at March 11, 2011 05:54 PM (2XtN5)

17 We're flying in and out of Kansai Airport near Osaka, and weren't planning on going any further east than Lake Biwa, so there shouldn't be any direct impact on our trip unless things get worse.

Apart from donating to disaster relief, which I've already done, the best thing I can do for Japan is spend my money there, so with luck I'll have my tax refund by then. My original plan of having Amazon ship a lot of stuff directly to the hotel might not work out any more, though; I'll have to spend a day hunting through stores in Osaka Denden Town instead.


Posted by: J Greely at March 11, 2011 06:13 PM (2XtN5)

18 I don't want to seem trivial here, but reports are coming in that the site of the Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, escaped relatively unhurt.  Offices shaken, yes, but they're far to the southwest of the epicenter of the disaster.

Sometimes you just need to grab onto some good news to deal with the horrid.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 11, 2011 07:31 PM (W8Men)


By all reports I've seen, the actual quake damage was pretty minor. But there really isn't any defense possible against a 4 meter tsunami, except run for the hills!

Some of the videos of the tsunami hitting towns have been sick-making to watch. The third video here was made by three old people, safe on a hill, watching the tsunami wiping out their town. It's horrifying to see the water picking up houses and other buildings and moving them like they were matchboxes. And I don't want to think about what happened to any people who didn't evacuate in time.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 08:49 PM (+rSRq)

20 I've seen footage of the tsunami wave inland... on fire.  I assume that was near the oil refinery that was wrecked, but it was still quite frightening.  Imagine having this wall of flaming water coming towards you... that's just not supposed to happen!

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 11, 2011 09:44 PM (W8Men)


Peter Payne, the J-List guy, made a post about it today. He and his family and all his employees and their families are OK.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 11, 2011 10:23 PM (+rSRq)

22 In 2009, Bones did an anime series called Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, which was an attempt to look at the damage a massive earthquake would cause. It did show aftershocks (not as many as this one's), but I don't remember tsunamis causing as much damage as they did here.

Posted by: muon at March 12, 2011 12:30 AM (BE3WR)

23 Looks like they may have lost containment at one of the nuke plants...rather spectacularly so.

Earthquake took out the main power to the coolant and the tsunami took out the backups. There's apparently at least one American working at the plant, as the CNN story quoted his wife.

Posted by: ubu at March 12, 2011 01:40 AM (GfCSm)

24 The Japanese government is claiming that the walls of the building were blown out, but the metal containment wasn't breached. Supposedly the pressure is going down.

Posted by: muon at March 12, 2011 05:03 AM (JXm2R)

25 It sounds a steam blowout, which is bad enough in that reactor type.  (Well, from what I've gleaned from the news, and me not being any sort of engineer.)  So there's been a local increase in radiation, but not an actual containment breach.  Bad but not disastrous.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 12, 2011 05:50 AM (PiXy!)


Despite my fears, it looks like the aftershocks have seriously ramped off. As I'm looking at the map, there's only been one aftershock in the last hour, and that one was M4.7.

So at least there's a little bit of good news. The real worry now is those nuclear plants, and I guess all we can do is wait, and trust the competence and professionalism of the people there who are desperately working to regain control.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 12, 2011 11:05 AM (+rSRq)

27 More good news, at least regarding the explosion at the nuclear plant.  The framework of the building is still there, which suggests that, while the boom was big, it probably wasn't big enough to do much to the containment vessel.  See before and after pic here.

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 12, 2011 11:46 AM (W8Men)


Steam explosions can potentially be titanic. It was a steam flashover that blew the top off of Mt. St. Helens, after all. And I've seen gun camera film from WWII where American fighter planes shot up German locomotives. When the boilers let go, the explosion was pretty impressive.

But it doesn't look like this one was very bad.

On the other hand, I'm a bit puzzled about this. Where, exactly, did the steam come from? The only important heat source is the reactor core, which is inside the containment vessel. If that much steam was released that suddenly, how did it get out of the containment vessel? Seems like the only way would be if the vessel popped, but that would mean there is a huge hole in it now.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 12, 2011 01:36 PM (+rSRq)

29 Its been a while since I read up on reactor designs, but my understanding is that the containment vessel is not physically contiguous with the primary cooling water.  The pipes bring the water through the reactor space, but the water is not actually exposed *to* the reactor itself, except by transmission of heat ( and radiation that can pass through metal pipes and walls ).

So, if the primary cooling ruptured, it'd release the primary cooling water ( which is radioactive for having been exposed to large amounts of radiation, induced radioactivity ), but wouldn't have to cause significant physical damage to the actual containment structure of the reactor vessel.

Posted by: metaphysician at March 12, 2011 02:39 PM (hD30M)

30 The whole point of coolant systems is to move heat. IIRC, a lot of nuke plants use a series of heat exchangers, such that the more radioactive circulating fluid is behind shielding, while stuff outside may only be hot thermally speaking. This can be thought of as a series of heat pumps. So, if the system is partly damaged, such that the final stages don't work, and the reactor is in the middle of being turned off, it may make sense to run the early stages only, and risk the later, less radioactive stages exploding, to keep the reactor from being as badly overheated. In that case, the heat source would the still functioning early stages, supplied by the reactor. Perhaps a less catastrophic failure mode than the reactor going itself?

IIRC, steam is a much worse coolant than liquid water, so it is a bad idea to try and operate it in that state, but if one is trying to get the sucker shut down...

Posted by: PatBuckman at March 12, 2011 02:51 PM (EjxbM)

31 There's a good explanation of the process here at Blackfive. Basically, the reactor was shut down (scrammed), but the heat from decaying radioactive products remained. With the offsite power lost due the quake and the tsunami knocking out the backup generators, the operators had to use limited battery power to pump the coolant over the core. Because the batteries can't run the pumps for long, they used "feed and bleed": pump fresh water and let it vaporize into steam to remove the heat, then bleed it into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the explosion in the building was caused by hydrogen, which would only be present if the fuel rods were left exposed for a length of time and the uranium metal melted and interacted with the zirconium alloy cladding. Right now the operators have had to pump seawater into the core, almost certainly ruining the reactor. The American Nuclear Society has an aggregate news site that includes coverage of the reactor here.

Posted by: muon at March 12, 2011 07:27 PM (JXm2R)


OK, that makes a hell of a lot more sense. And it does mean there's been at least a partial meltdown.

But it also explains how there could be an explosion without blowing out the containment. The hydrogen would have been released with the steam.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 12, 2011 08:16 PM (+rSRq)

33 True. Ordinarily there are devices to ignite any leaked hydrogen before it explodes, but they were knocked out by the earthquake.

Posted by: muon at March 12, 2011 08:52 PM (JXm2R)

34 Correction, the hydrogen igniters weren't working because of the power failures.

An incredible piece of irony: the reactor was scheduled to be decommissioned this very month.

Posted by: muon at March 12, 2011 09:51 PM (JXm2R)

35 That would explain why the fuel rods have a lot of secondary radioactives in them; they were at end-of-cycle.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 12, 2011 10:28 PM (+rSRq)

36 This was a boiling water reactor.

I'm not sure how that changes the variables, but it has one less layer between the bad and the world than the pressurized water designs favored in the US and France.

As muon points out it is very old. This is not only true physically but design-wise. It went operational between '70 and 71 ( I've read both) and, as I understand it, was based on a very early GE design. 

This was an obsolete design with a history of safety issues and at the end of its life. A 9.0 quake, multiple aftershocks and a flaming tsunami took out its coolant system feedwater, auxiliary power, hydrogen pilot lights and emergency generators. Its primary pressure vessel has reportedly remained intact and a disaster may still be averted. There are, as always, lessons to be learned, but this performance actually fairly impressive. The stations current staff and the response team have been dealt a bum hand and played it very well.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at March 13, 2011 01:44 AM (EJaOX)

37 The newest designs use passive emergency cooling methods (gravity and back pressure) that don't require power, but even the current model Advanced Boiling Water Reactor(ABWR) has safety systems that would have eliminated this threat. Unfortunately, the Japanese government thinks there may have been another fuel meltdown in reactor #3.

Posted by: muon at March 13, 2011 06:07 AM (JXm2R)


Patterico has a good discussion of the situation. It's bad, but we're not really looking at a catastrophe.

Certainly by comparison to the damage done by the tsunami, it approaches the negligible. There were three plant workers who are now being treated for radiation sickness, but aside from them it isn't expected that this will kill anyone. On the other hand, the tsunami may have killed tens of thousands.

Brickmuppet posted a scary video of a town being hit. It was shot from a local hill which was high enough to be safe, and at one point the camera turns around to show all the people there and how they are reacting to watching their town be obliterated. I really felt sorry for that little girl; she needed a big hug. (And got one, from her grandma.)

Anyway, it  was close enough to really show how fast the water was moving, and how powerful it was. Some of the other videos of the tsunami I've seen, shot from helicopters and such like, were high enough so that it didn't really seem as if the water was moving all that fast, or had that much power. But in this one you can really see why the damage was so great.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 10:49 AM (+rSRq)

39 Now there's a volcano erupting about eighty miles southeast of Nagasaki. I don't see any reports of deaths from that, at least.

(the volcano was known to be active, with a smaller eruption in January, and apparently this wasn't entirely unexpected, but the timing really sucks)


Posted by: J Greely at March 13, 2011 11:47 AM (2XtN5)


It does seem like stacking insult on injury, doesn't it?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 02:10 PM (+rSRq)

41 It makes me glad I live in Australia, where all I have trying to kill me is all of the animals and half of the plants, not the ground.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 13, 2011 02:34 PM (PiXy!)

42 Pixy, you also have to contend with fire and flood.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 03:41 PM (+rSRq)

43 True.  But hardly ever simultaneously.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 13, 2011 03:47 PM (PiXy!)


Somewhere else I was reading, they were trying to come up with a place where you were free of all of this kind of thing. Someone suggested Ireland.

No tornadoes, no hurricanes, no volcanos, no earthquakes, too wet for catastrophic fires, consistently wet so lots of rivers and not really much in the way of flooding. And no poisonous snakes.

Sounds pretty good to me. And yet, the majority of its population emigrated.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 04:01 PM (+rSRq)

45 I wonder how much of that emigration was due to population pressure from the land being *too* good, though, combined with certain social and political pressures that didn't encourage the excess population to stick around and make a go of it somehow...

Actually, I think I would've answered with the Willamette Valley.  There's a reason all those folks risked their lives trying to get out there.  I assume that the vast majority of it is out of range of the remaining active volcanoes...

Posted by: BigD at March 13, 2011 04:31 PM (LjWr8)

46 There are a series of offensive answers to the question of what, exactly, is wrong with Ireland, making it hazardous to human occupation.

A. The Irish
B. The Irish (Population density perspective)
C. The Irish (If Irish culture promotes violance to an unusual degree)
D. Catholics (If we are trying to draw parrallels with Mexico, which has similar levels of emigration)
E. The English

The more serious answer is that while potatoes are God's gift to Mankind (add 'and the Irish' if you dislike being serious), planting a monoculture of them risks illness wiping them out, which can be a huge famine hazard. That and Man is ever the greatest enemy of Man, so whatever environment is healthy for Man will eventually produce factors injurious to Man.

Posted by: PatBuckman at March 13, 2011 05:07 PM (EjxbM)

47 Of course, the Irish didn't plant a monoculture of potatoes; the potatoes were just the only thing they had left to feed themselves with after the taxes. . .

Posted by: metaphysician at March 13, 2011 06:55 PM (hD30M)


I grew up here in Portland, and in grade school we studied the Oregon Trail, for obvious reasons. It seemed a titanically difficult trip (and I still think so) and I always wondered why anyone would put themselves through it.

Then I moved to Massachusetts and saw what the soil was like there. It's about 25% gravel, and there's just no way to get all the rocks out. The soil generally just isn't very good for farming, but that's what the people there had been trying to do. Assuming it's similar elsewhere in that part of the country, then it made sense that people might be willing to travel 2000 miles in a covered wagon to get here, considering that the land was free (at that time) and the soil was tremendously fertile and the rains were reliable.

On the other hand, we are not immune to volcanos. Here in Beaverton, we got dusted once by Mt. St. Helens. More important is that it is possible for Mount Hood to do exactly the same thing that Mount St. Helens did. And if it blasted to the west (the way Mount St. Helens blasted to the north) then no, we are not far enough away to be safe. Portland would be devastated. Likewise, if you assume a huge ash plume and an unfavorable wind, Portland could be buried in ash.

That could have happened from Mt. St. Helens, too. I read somewhere that if on May 18 the wind had been blowing the way it was the day we got dusted, then the Portland area would have been buried 8 feet deep, and essentially everyone would have died.

Not immediately; not the day of the eruption. But people trapped in their homes with the water supply out and no possible way of evacuating and it would have been really ugly.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 07:00 PM (+rSRq)

49 I think this thread has wandered enough and I'm going to close it now.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 13, 2011 07:00 PM (+rSRq)

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