In the seven years I’ve been subscribing to the U.S. Geological Survey’s email alert system, I have never seen anything like what happened today. Between 5:46 GMT and the moment I’m writing this (twelve hours later), there have been 86 earthquakes stronger than M 5.0 off the northeast coast of Japan. Of course it’s the initial quake that has grabbed headlines, and well it should: M 8.9 is a massive, massive earthquake. This one has already taken its position as the biggest in Japan’s recent recorded history (going back to 1891).
But what is really stunning is the number and sheer strength of the aftershocks, many of which would qualify as “seriously big” under ordinary circumstances. There have been 16 quakes of M 6.0 or stronger, including five that were M 6.5 or stronger. One of them was 7.1. And the email alerts keep coming in. The Japanese are famous for their sang froid regarding earthquakes, but this is an unending assault.
Then there are the tsunamis. Since I also subscribe to both the Pacific and the West Coast & Alaska tsunami warning systems, my email inbox has been going nuts all day. I’ve tracked the waves from Japan to Hawaii to the Oregon and northern California coast, where the leading edge just hit during a low tide. That minimized the potential damage. Hilo and Waikiki got hit with some good-sized waves, but since the beaches had long been evacuated, there was no reported loss of life.
While all of this has been going on, I’ve been thinking about how modern technology has transformed the average person’s understanding and awareness of events like this. We’ve got data buoys all over the Pacific basin, sending information to the USGS, which then sends out alerts, which are picked up by news stations and government officials. The advance warning time is now several hours, depending on how far a danger zone is from the epicenter.
But that’s the data-heavy, scientific side of things. We’ve also got Twitter, and YouTube, and mobile phone cameras and text messaging. The information flies around the world almost instantly, impacting people who would never know how to find or interpret earthquake information on the USGS web site. It doesn’t matter, because they’re getting text messages from friends in Tokyo, or a Twitter post from a relative in middle Kansas who just heard it on the news. In turn, they’re IMing or text messaging friends and relatives who might be in danger zones. The whole world is connected in ways it never was before, which means that a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan is no longer just something to watch on the five o’clock news. It impacts people globally from the moment it happens.
I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of amazing coverage as time goes on, but to start with, Alan Taylor’s In Focus photo blog has collected 33 (so far) of the most compelling images available. Note: Taylor created The Big Picture at the Boston Globe, before being scooped up by the Atlantic just recently. The Big Picture is still in operation, though with a new photo editor. Images will often overlap, but they are both worth checking. At the moment, The Big Picture has 43 photos up.
Finally, the best video footage I’ve seen so far is at the Guardian.