Japan's seismologists blinded to March 11 quake: journal

Apr 13, 2011
The sun sets over debris still piled up nearly five weeks after the earthquake and tsunami disaster devastated the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture. Japan's seismologists were so entrenched in outdated beliefs about seismic hazard that they became blinkered to the risk of the March 11 mega-quake, a commentary in a top science journal charged on Wednesday.

Japan's seismologists were so entrenched in outdated beliefs about seismic hazard that they became blinkered to the risk of the March 11 mega-quake, a commentary in a top science journal charged on Wednesday.

Writing in the journal Nature, Robert Geller, an American who is professor of seismology at the University of Tokyo, said Japanese government scientists had become fixated by the risk of a big quake on Japan's southern Pacific coast.

This had skewed their view of the risks for the country's northeast, where the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami left more than 26,500 people dead or missing, he said.

Geller pointed the finger at a belief, entrenched for decades, that Japan faces imminent risks of a huge in a plate boundary off the southern coasts of Honshu and Shikoku.

Government-made hazard maps of the Tokai, Tonankai and Nankai "earthquake zones" are hugely promoted in public awareness campaigns and have gained the status of holy writ, he said.

But, said Geller, these maps are based on two assumptions, the "characteristic earthquake" and "seismic gap" theories, which date from the 1960s and 70s and have not been supported by evidence.

A Japanese defense soldier walks among the tsunami devastation in Rikuzentakata city, Iwate prefecture while removing debris. Japan's seismologists were so entrenched in outdated beliefs about seismic hazard that they became blinkered to the risk of the March 11 mega-quake, a commentary in a top science journal charged on Wednesday.

"This misleads the public into believing that the clock is ticking down inexorably on a magnitude-eight earthquake that is certain to strike the Tokai district in the near future," he said.

Geller said that since 1975, no large earthquake had occurred in any of the three zones billed by government scientists as the country's most hazardous regions.

In contrast, all earthquakes that have caused 10 or more fatalities in Japan since 1979 have occurred in places that were categorised as being of relatively low probability, he said.

Had the scientists delved into historical records showing that quake-generated tsunamis had repeatedly struck northeastern Japan over past centuries, the March 11 thrust could have been "'foreseen', in a general way," argued Geller.

Its timing and location would not have been known, but at least its potential force could have been factored into the design of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, he said.

Geller said establishment thinking and scientific complacency had been moulded by a 1978 law, the Large-Scale Countermeasures Act (LECA).

This requires the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) to operate an alert system based on the assumption that early warning can be given of a Tokai quake.

"It is time to tell the public frankly that earthquakes cannot be predicted, to scrap the Tokai prediction system and to repeal the LECA," said Geller.

"All of is at risk from earthquakes, and the present state of seismological science does not allow us to reliably differentiate the risk level in particular geographic areas."

Explore further: Remnants of Tropical Depression Peipah still raining on Philippines

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New hazard estimates could downplay quake dangers

Apr 16, 2008

The dangers posed by a major earthquake in the New Madrid and Charleston, South Carolina zones in the Midwestern and Southern parts of the United States may be noticeably lower than current estimates if seismologists adjust ...

IAEA warned Japan over nuclear quake risk: WikiLeaks

Mar 17, 2011

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned Japan two years ago that a strong earthquake could pose a "serious problem" for its nuclear power stations, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported.

No long-distance risks from mega-quakes: study

Mar 27, 2011

Monster earthquakes like the 9.0-magnitude event that occurred off Japan on March 11 are unlikely to trigger a large quake in distant regions of the world, according to a study published on Sunday.

WHOI experts stress lessons From Japan earthquake

Mar 14, 2011

While Japan's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and accompanying tsunami represent a devastating natural disaster for the country's residents, scientists should also seize upon the massive temblor as an important learning tool for ...

Recommended for you

Melting during cooling period

1 hour ago

(Phys.org) —A University of Maine research team says stratification of the North Atlantic Ocean contributed to summer warming and glacial melting in Scotland during the period recognized for abrupt cooling ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

4 hours ago

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

6 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Melting during cooling period

(Phys.org) —A University of Maine research team says stratification of the North Atlantic Ocean contributed to summer warming and glacial melting in Scotland during the period recognized for abrupt cooling ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

Australia's dirty secret: who's breathing toxic air?

Australians living in poorer communities, with lower employment and education levels, as well as communities with a high proportion of Indigenous people, are significantly more likely to be exposed to high ...