[ExI] tsunami in japan

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sat Mar 12 10:20:57 UTC 2011

On 2011-03-11 18:28, spike wrote:
> Comparing yesterday’s tsunami in Japan to the one in the Indian Ocean on
> 26 December 2004: the death toll in this one will likely be on the order
> of a tenth of a percent of the 2004 incident, yet the property damage as
> measured in anything we recognize as currency will likely be far greater
> in 2011 than in 2004.

The major thing I learned when I took a class in natural disasters was 
that human vulnerability matters much more than the physical size of the 
disturbance itself, and that almost by definition the poor are going to 
be most vulnerable.

Japan is an amazingly resilient society in many ways. It has long 
experience with earthquakes and tsunami ('harbor wave' in Japanese). 
Many vulnerable coastal towns run regular civil defense exercises, and 
of course building codes and emergency services have plenty of 
earthquake planning. Not to mention an extremely strong civil society, 
which is usually what really counts for immediate aftermath saving. So 
when I first heard the news my intuitive guess at the number of 
fatalities was around 10; that is sadly likely two orders of magnitude 
too low, but given the size of that thing - 8.9 is amazingly big! - it 
could have been far, far worse.

The cost issue is interesting. When you look at economic losses due to 
natural disasters they seem to be growing exponentially. This is not 
because the disasters are becoming more common, but because more people 
with expensive stuff live near disasters are likely.

In the 80s and early 90s some people feared that should Japan be hit by 
a big one they would sell off all their foreign investments to pay for 
fixing it; given the 80s idea that Japan would be running/buying the 
world (like today many think China will) it made some sense. However, 
the 95 Kobe quake proved less problematic than believed, and of course 
the Japanese economy has not been doing too well over the past two 
decades either. This disaster will likely not be terribly different, 
although we got a shakier world economy at present, so it might scare 
the markets (lots of big factories closed right now). In any case, the 
Japanese construction industry (always a close friend of the government) 
will be getting rich now - I would invest in concrete.

It is intriguing to look at the time course of the preceding quakes - 
one can see how an earlier quake caused a sequence of smaller quakes 
along one faultline... then a few hours of silence, the big one, and a 
widespread set of secondary quakes:

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford University

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