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Aftershock: The Continuing Effects of Japan's March 11, 2011 Earthquake
(Released February 2012)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  

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On March 11, 2011 at 2:46pm Japan Standard Time a 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook the East Coast of Honshu, Japan. The epicenter of the earthquake, located approximately 130 km offshore of northeastern Japan, generated a tsunami wave estimated to be between 10 to 15 meters in height (Stimpson 96). The leading edge of the tsunami rolled over the world’s most extensive and sophisticated system of sea walls, almost as if no barriers were in place (Bond). Tsunami waters traveled somewhere between 6 -10km inland picking up homes and massive amounts of debris on its inland progress. Prior to this earthquake, seismic experts had estimated that the largest earthquake to be expected in the area would be limited to 8.2 (Dengler) on the moment magnitude scale. This means that the March 11 earthquake measured between 10 and 20 times larger than anything experts had previously expected. The Sendai earthquake is currently the 4th largest earthquake in the world since 1900, when the technology was first available to provide accurate estimates of seismic activity.

Map of the Sendai Earthquake 2011 and aftershocks
Map of the Sendai Earthquake 2011 and aftershocks until March 14, 2011 at 11:20.

Japan is a volcanic island located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The majority of the world's seismic and volcanic activity occurs along this margin of oceanic and continental convergence. In many ways, Japan was better prepared for this earthquake than any other country in the world would have been. Japan has stringent earthquake building codes in place. Though localized damage nearest the epicenter of the earthquake was severe (Guo et al), large parts of the country fared very well during and in the aftermath of the quake. Japan was less prepared for the tsunami, and the majority of fatalities occurred when coastal communities in Honshu were inundated. Engineers are now looking to events in Japan and other coastal areas vulnerable to seismic activity with the concern that the same sort of efforts focused on building to earthquake standards should also be applied to tsunami resistant architecture. Some have suggested building vertical evacuation structures along vulnerable coastal regions (Bond).   

The event with the most long term consequences for Japan was the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The earthquake damaged the power plant, and problems were further aggravated when tsunami waters flooded the facility. In the early days of the disaster, it was difficult to get clear information regarding the extent of damage to the facility. In the first few months, the flow of information regarding the status of the power plant was controlled by TEPCO, the Japanese energy company running the Fukushima power plant. TEPCO was reluctant to admit to a meltdown, even though radiation levels surrounding the facility suggested that conditions were worse than the company was letting on.

Satellite image of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant
A March 16, 2011, satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi's four damaged reactor buildings

In the months following Japan's devastating earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, thousands of volunteers planted millions of sunflowers in and around Fukushima Prefecture. The fields of sunflowers planted in the radioactive regions near the failed nuclear reactors serve as an incongruous symbol in a story filled with incongruity and uncertainty. Depending on which story you read, the idea of planting sunflowers near Fukushima is attributed to two people, a Buddhist monk named Koyu Abe (Watts), and a young entrepreneur named Shinji Handa (Oaken). The quickly growing sunflowers are known to absorb heavy metals, including radioactive elements such as cesium, a common contaminate released during nuclear accidents. However, unless the sunflowers are properly disposed of, the flowers can release the harmful materials they absorbed and re-contaminate the environment at the end of the sunflowers' life cycle (Battles).

With the failure of three of Fukushima's six reactors, Japan currently holds the unenviable record of the most costly man-made disaster in recorded history. This disaster raises troubling questions. Were the events of March 11 foreseeable, and could the worst results of the disaster have been avoided with better preparation? Is it possible to safely run nuclear facilities anywhere, much less in a part of the world so prone to seismic activity? What is Japan's nuclear future? These are not easy questions to answer, and Japan and the world will be grappling with them for some time to come. This Discovery Guide will focus on the human impact of these combined natural and man-made disasters. Particularly it will focus on how the story of the earthquake evolved in online reporting over time from the days immediately following the earthquake until the end of the year. The body of this essay will be divided in three intervals written in July, September, and December of 2011. Each section focuses on approximately three months of the evolution of the story.

Go To March–June: Earthquake, Shelters, Fukushima Meltdown

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