Predicting Ten Thousand Deaths in the Next Big Tokyo Earthquake

Millions of people in Japan are getting ever more nervous that “The Big One” will come soon – the earthquake that strikes Tokyo, the heart of Japan. This concern is certainly justified, ever since the 2011 earthquake raised the probability so dramatically. The last time I reported, newest research from the Tokyo University’s Earthquake Research Institute (ERI) found that there’s a 70% chance that a magnitude 7 quake will hit by 2016. Though a M7 is not nearly as big as the M9 quake that caused last year’s tsunami, Tokyo is one of the most heavily populated cities in the world, so the death toll will likely be substantial.

According to the Daily Yomiuri:

About 9,700 people could die and about 300,000 buildings could be destroyed or burn down in Tokyo if a magnitude-7.3 earthquake with its focus in northern Tokyo Bay directly hits the metropolitan area, according to a new prediction by the Tokyo metropolitan government.

The estimated death toll was nearly double the previous forecast made in 2006.

The new prediction is based on an analysis by a research team of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, which recently revised upward the predicted maximum seismic intensity from upper 6 to the highest level of 7.

I’m a little confused because, as I mentioned once before, the Daily Yomiuri said this in January: “If a magnitude-7.3 earthquake occurs directly under northern Tokyo Bay, as many as 11,000 people are expected to die and about 850,000 buildings to be rendered totally unusable or destroyed by fire.” I’m not sure where they got those numbers, but either there was an error, or they are referring to research from two different sources.

The title image above is actually a very informative map of the potentially most damaged areas; and while some may be pessimistic, I think this is a very good thing to have. Such information lets us know where people should be preparing the most, and what place is the most vulnerable. For example, the area within the JR Yamanote Line (probably the most popular train line in Tokyo, because it is a convenient circle in the middle) is surprisingly safe compared to areas directly south of it. These are the places where we should be taking building reinforcements most seriously.

To be sure, Japan is more ready for such a devastating earthquake than any other country in the world. Buildings are getting stronger every year, little by little, because of reinforcements and strict building standards, and lots of tests are being conducted nowadays. The number of houses and buildings predicted to be damaged fell from the previous 2006 prediction by 130,000, where it now stands at 304,300.

Elevators have also become somewhat of a priority. There are around 700,000 elevators in Japan, and 84 in Tokyo were reported to have stopped during the March 11 quake, leaving people stranded inside. Surely, there were more that went unreported. Yomiuri warns that “One study estimated that more than 10,000 people could be stuck in an elevator if a major quake strikes Tokyo, but the actual number must surely be higher.”

The question of “will there be a tsunami?” is on many people’s minds when they hear this. The answer is simple. Yes. A tsunami will definitely come to Tokyo if the quake hits where it’s predicted. Tokyo is basically at sea level; but obviously they have prepared for the possibility of tsunamis before.

So luckily, a tsunami will probably only reach 2 and a half meters (8 feet). But as I reported before, the coverage of tsunamis last year gradually warped the minds of the public. Most people used to think that a 2-meter-high tsunami was enough to be considered “dangerous,” but after the coverage showing the gigantic tsunami, people began to believe that only such a huge wave could be substantial. In fact, a 2-meter-high tsunami is enough to destroy a house. So it’s good that 2 meters is not going to destroy Tokyo like it did the coast of East Japan, but it’s still nothing to scoff about.

Everyone here knows that the Big One is coming. It’s just a matter of time. The good thing about these predictions is that we can know more of what to expect and where to expect it. If people plan escape routes in Tokyo, a lot of lives should be saved. I hope companies in Tokyo are especially paying attention to the foreign workers who do not understand Japanese. And hopefully we have learnt something from last time when it comes to surviving these kinds of things.

Whatever happens, the whole country has their eyes set on Tokyo. Until it occurs, we only have hypothetical numbers on a graph.

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