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Earthquake Research Says Tokyo May Get “The Big One” Within the Next Few Years

I have been covering earthquake predictions in Japan for a few months, and unfortunately the news has been getting progressively worse. I wrote a detailed article about this before, explaining the risks and implications of a powerful earthquake in Tokyo, but researchers from the University of Tokyo are challenging those earlier predictions. The situation, they say, is much more worrisome than we thought, and the danger may come much earlier than expected.

New Predictions

For years, people have been talking about “the big one” – the earthquake that brings damage to Tokyo like the one that did to Kobe in 1995. Of course, ever since Kobe’s earthquake, which killed over 6400 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, safety standards for buildings have become much more strict. This is obviously very important for considering the potential damage to Tokyo. After all, it was this lack in safety standards that allowed hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti to die after the Magnitude 7 quake which struck two years ago.

Previous research – by a joint U.S. and Japanese collaboration called the US Geological Survey (USGS) – calculated a 30% chance of a massive earthquake (M7 or higher) in the Greater Tokyo Area. But that was in 2006. Since the March 11 disaster, that number surely has increased, because earthquakes increase the likelihood of subsequent earthquakes. As I mentioned in September, the Japanese government previously estimated that Tokyo had a 70% chance of getting hit by a magnitude 7 earthquake over the next 3 decades. This optimistic projection may have been a bit too premature.

Tokyo University’s Earthquake Research Institute (ERI) has said that their research suggests a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 quake not without 30 years, but within four. By 2016, there is a good chance that the big one will happen. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s likely. What is practically guaranteed, however, is that if it doesn’t happen soon, it will just happen later. The ERI said that the probability of an M7 within 30 years is 98%. So you can expert to see more grief from Japan soon.

The government has commented that the calculations ERI made were done using a different computer model, which is why the projections were so different. It’s hard to know what to believe or not, as earthquake-prediction is a tricky science. We can see this clearly in the case of the Italian seismologists, who were charged with manslaughter last year for failing to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. The Italian legal system is now sorting out whether or not they were at fault.

Regardless, the Japanese government has released some estimates that sound alarming. I have no idea how their numbers were generated, but the Guardian reports that they said a M7.3 quake could result in 5,600 deaths, 159,000 injuries, and the destruction of 850,000 buildings. Japan’s top newspaper – the Yomiuri Shimbun – reports the estimated number of deaths at 11,000.

Being in Tokyo

The Minister of State for Disaster Management, Tatsuo Hirano, has voiced his confidence in the science and architecture of Tokyo to withstand such an earthquake. “Please rest assured and don’t flee Tokyo,” he said, while also noting that multiple sources suggest a strong quake in the wider Kanto region. Indeed, March 11 increased the risk for many possible disasters, including yet another M9 earthquake off the coast of Tohoku.

Don’t expect Tokyo to just crumble to the ground, but I do think there will be some buildings getting demolished; and that probably means deaths. While it’s true that Tokyo withstood March 11 for the most part, there were still buildings (or parts of buildings) that collapsed, killing and injuring many. The real question here is: How much more powerful is a magnitude 7 earthquake right under Tokyo than Japan’s biggest earthquake ever recorded, hundreds of kilometers away? While most of the media I’ve seen has said “hopefully we just won’t have to think about it…” I think we can all agree that we’re past that now. It’s time to imagine it, no matter how hard it is to talk about. We have to start preparing for the inevitable.

Of course, this means everyone around Tokyo is even slightly more on edge now. Since there’s no way to know which building will be left standing, many people fear a big earthquake. A survey conducted as far back as early September 2011 found that almost 80% of Japanese people feared a big earthquake in Tokyo – well before these latest projections came to light.

The only good thing we can foresee about this news is that there will probably be no tsunami threat. But that’s ultimately where the silver lining ends. The bustling metropolis of Tokyo has so many high rises that millions of people will be at risk regardless of whether they are inside or outside a building. As September 11 showed us, you don’t have to be in a collapsing building to be permanently damaged. Suffice it to say, we here in Japan have a lot to be worried about.

Whenever the big one comes, it will test the world’s most technologically-prepared nation, pitting science against nature.

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