Learning from the Japan tsunami

What lessons can we learn from the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami?

Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing. We can, of course, question the wisdom of placing nuclear power plants in coastal locations where we know there is a high likelihood of a large earthquake or tsunami some time in the future.

For any type of coastal building – be it someone’s house, a factory, a power plant – it’s very easy to hide behind the safety net of words when things go wrong and say something like: “Well, we built to a standard that takes into account the historical record of past events … using the best knowledge available to science … etc.”.

But it doesn’t take a rocket (or tsunami) scientist to recognise there are a lot of countries with large coastal populations and infrastructure right on the very edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Let’s be clear: these countries largely exist because of the meeting of tectonic plate boundaries. At some point along these boundaries, all hell is going to break loose, and it’s likely to happen a lot more frequently in these countries than elsewhere in the world – so why is this all a surprise?

The 1960 Valdivia (Chile) earthquake and tsunami, the 1946 Aleutian earthquake and tsunami and the 1700 Cascadia earthquake and tsunami were all incredibly large events; they all caused widespread death and destruction; they all happened on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

These days, we are able to do fancy things with computers and actually put to good use the kind of data that is produced by studying these events. Which means we’re at a point now where we should be able to better “manage” such extreme natural events.

We can produce animated computer models that show the tsunami inundating the land, as well as showing how resilient different type of buildings are to the flow depths and speed of such events.

True, this is still pretty new science, but if there has ever been a time to roll out this type of work it’s surely now. As the world’s population continues to grow and gravitate towards coasts, we are putting ourselves more and more at risk and we need to manage that risk.

Australia may not sit directly on the Pacific Ring of Fire, but we do suffer the consequences of being “near-neighbours”.

The trans-Pacific tsunami generated by the magnitude-8.8 Chile earthquake on February 27 last year prompted the Australian Tsunami Warning System to issue warning messages for Australia’s east coast in particular.

This was a wonderfully smooth operation comprising many dedicated scientists who take tsunamis very seriously – they did not issue these warnings just for the fun of it.

So what happened?

In Sydney, literally thousands of people either ignored the warning or flocked down to Bondi Beach and other sites to watch the event; some reportedly to swim with the tsunami.

Admittedly, some may not have heard the warning, or misjudged the risk, but since this month’s devastating tsunami in Japan, no-one can plead ignorance of what tsunamis can do.

Thanks to Japan, the old concepts of what a tsunami is like are out of the window – my favourite of which was always: “Oh, it’s just a bit like a big storm wave”.

Well, no, no, and no again.

We are still not able to accurately predict these things, but with the incredible, jaw-dropping aerial real-time footage of the Japanese tsunami – obliterating people, cars, houses, whole towns and communities in a matter of seconds – we can certainly make sure the public are better educated about what tsunamis really are.

Will Australia ever get a tsunami like the one in Japan? It’s unlikely, but smaller tsunamis, the like of which Australia has seen in the past and will see again in the future, kill people, destroy houses, ruin livelihoods and devastate coastlines. And they continue to catch the unprepared off-guard.

Why did someone die on the US coast as a result of the recent Japan tsunami? The wave was not large: it was the kind of thing we can easily expect to see in Australia. They went to the coast to photograph the wave – DON’T.

If the only advance in science to come out of the Japan tsunami is a better informed Australian public – fantastic, because right now our past performances are pathetic. And don’t forget, we might not be in Australia when the next event happens. Everyone is a tourist sometimes.

Let us all learn from Japan.