Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan Earthquake: Macro facts, radiation, and a time for compassion

The destruction wreaked upon Japan by the earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing threat from radioactivity is, understandably, central on the minds of people and media worldwide. The loss of life, property, and the infrastructure of a developed culture is near apocalyptic and begs comparisons to what befell Japan at the end of the Second World War.

Macro Facts
Not to take away from the impact on the Japanese people, but there are also some staggering macro or global facts and issues as result of these recent events. Writing for Yahoo News, Vanessa Evans cited these facts:

* Although the largest earthquake recorded on Friday was the massive 8.9 quake that caused the vast majority of the damage, there have been hundreds of aftershocks, some of which reached magnitude 6 strength, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

* Any number of those aftershocks were as large as the earthquake that shook Christchurch, New Zealand, late last month.

* Geophysicist Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, has estimated that the Japanese earthquake shortened the Earth's day by 1.8 microseconds. Gross also said that the axis of the Earth probably shifted about 6.5 inches, which affects how it rotates, but not its position or movement in space.

* The U.S. Geological Survey initially estimated that Japan as a whole has physically moved by approximately 8 feet, but other scientists around the globe have estimated that some parts of the country may actually have moved as much as 12 feet closer to North America. In addition, parts of the country's terrain are now permanently under sea level, which will make it difficult for the flooding caused by the tsunami to drain.

* The loss of 1.8 microseconds as a result of the shift in the Earth's axis is unlikely to cause more than minute changes, but among those changes will actually be differences in the passing of the seasons. This will only be observable using satellite navigation systems with very precise monitoring equipment.

* The shift of the Earth's axis and loss of time is similar to that experienced after the Chilean earthquake last year, which sped up the Earth's rotation and resulted in the loss of 1.26 microseconds.

Radiation and the Sea
While many of these facts are scientifically interesting, they won't necessarily have a profound effect on the day-to-day activities of the planet. However, one ongoing issue, that of the possibility of a large discharge of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear facility, is an important concern to the ocean environment.

Current weather forecasts are showing prevailing winds blowing to the East, therefore taking any escaped radiation away from the mainland - but out to sea. The Japanese government has been exceedingly cautious in their pronouncements about the crisis at the nuclear facility. However, from an ocean ecology perspective, there are some important questions to be answered.

How powerful or strong would the radiation be if there was a major leakage from the facility? What kinds of particles would the radiation consist of? Would these particles travel great distances above the sea or would they settle quickly, close within Japanese waters? Could the radiation be consumed by fish or smaller creatures, entering the food chain at a base level and work their way up in time? Could certain fish like swordfish, tuna, or sharks - which are known to accumulate other pollutants - also accumulate radiation over time. Or would the radiation dissipate to such low levels as to not be an issue.

The potential harm from radiation to the Japanese people is certainly an important concern. However, the same can be said of the environment, and particularly the sea, should a major discharge occur and the predicted winds carry it out to sea.

Our Better Nature
Speaking of the Japanese people, I have read a few online comments from some highly passionate but misguided conservationists who see the events of the past few days as a fitting retribution on the Japanese people for their whaling, dolphin, and tuna fishing activities. Nothing could be further from the truth and, in fact, denigrates us as a civilized society when we stoop to those kind of pronouncements.

This was not justice, or God's will, or bad karma, or any other vengeful nonsense. Natural disasters of this sort have occurred throughout the history of this planet and they will continue to do so long after we have either resolved the issues of protecting the environment or vanished through our own self-extinction. If we are at all worthy of sharing any space on this planet it will be because we can call upon the "better angels of our nature" - the same ones that make us strive to protect endangered species and conserve our natural resources - and bring comfort and compassion to our fellow man in the face of such catastrophe.

Support the relief efforts through the American Red Cross or similar agency in your country.

Read more about the changes in the earth in Yahoo News.

No comments: