Sunday, March 20, 2011

2011 Tsunami – Technology, Warning System and Japanese Perseverance

The double whammy of earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan was a sobering reminder of how tiny we humans still are in the hands of the forces of nature. The live videos of furious water mowing down and engulfing buildings, trucks, cars and neighborhoods as if they were little debris seemed like a trailer from a disaster movie. The ruinous aftermath notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking what would have happened had this occurred in any other coastal or island country…like Haiti, Fiji or Madagascar.

Over the years, Japan has built perhaps the most advanced earthquake warning systemdeploying thousands of seismographic sensors across the whole country and setting up a quick broadcast system using a one-to-many version of text messaging called SMS-CB (short message service – cell broadcast). 

Now a quick segue to earthquake101…….  An earthquake typically has two types of tremors  – less destructive but faster P-waves and slightly slower but damaging shear or S-waves. The speed difference between the two, received from thousands of ground sensors, allowed Japan to assess location and severity sending warnings within seconds, not only to citizens, but also to public infrastructure to initiate emergency procedures. For instance, the residents of Tokyo, which was 373 km from the epicenter, had a valuable 80 seconds to take life-saving steps to safety. Other areas of Japan, especially Northern Japan, perhaps had shorter windows, but still a valuable few seconds to react.

Interestingly, here in California, researchers at Stanford University are pursuing a crowd-sourcing technology – Quake-Catcher Network – aggregating data from volunteer laptop accelerometers to detect quakes. 

.....The Japan disaster is also a test case to gauge the progress of tsunami prediction technology since the Asian tsunami of 2004. Clearly the series of sensors spread across the Pacific and the Indian ocean floor ( and the complicated codes to process all the data from them are paying off. The local tsunami warning in Japan came three minutes after the quake struck while the one from the regional Pacific Tsunami Warning Center came within nine minutes . As a result, residents of the hardest-hit areas in Northern Japan had 15 minutes of warning, saving many lives, yet not soon enough for tens of thousands of missing. The response time may not still be at its desired best, yet it’s a lot of progress since 2004.

Technology aside, I cannot help being amazed at how exemplary and powerful the innate head-bowing Japanese politeness could be at this devastating time as I see the pictures of Sendai residents waiting in a mile-long rainy queue outside a food store. The power of national discipline over social chaos could not have been more apparent.  The contrast indeed was striking, given the pictures of mayhem and marauding that often accompanies disaster and misery. The ongoing nuclear mess notwithstanding, this is one country that will surely rebuild once again.