Extreme weather and natural disasters make Japan's civil protection agencies among world's busiest

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Extreme weather and natural disasters make Japan's civil protection agencies among world's busiestAs Super Typhoon Hagibis bore down on Japan on Saturday – the most violent storm to strike in more than 80 years – the country was rattled on another front by a magnitude 5.7 earthquake. The quake, which shook large parts of the east just as Japan was on the highest level of alert for the approaching typhoon, underlined the threat that natural disasters constantly pose to the Japanese people.  At a depth of around 50 miles beneath the seabed close to the mouth of Tokyo Bay, it was felt several hundred miles from the epicentre. The Japan Meteorological Agency released an assessment three minutes after the tremor to confirm that there was no threat of a tsunami and there were no immediate reports of casualties.  The magnitude 9 earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered in March 2011 are still fresh in the memories of most Japanese, and it is fortunate that Saturday’s quake was not more serious. Out in force to respond to the typhoon, emergency services and the Japanese military could have been stretched beyond breaking point if they were also required to cope with victims of yet another tragedy. In the last decade, Japan has experienced some of the most extreme weather conditions and catastrophic natural disasters anywhere on the planet. And as a result, the country’s civil protection and monitoring agencies are among the busiest in the world.  Predictions on dangerous weather systems and the monitoring of seismic activity across the archipelago falls to the Japan Meteorological Agency, which has observation equipment and regional facilities that are staffed around the clock from Hokkaido in the far north to the islands of Okinawa.  Weather patterns are tracked via satellites to provide data that is constantly updated on the agency’s web site and is shared, in times of emergency, with the government and rescue services. Earthquakes are measured by seismic monitors that instantly transmit critical data on the size of the tremor and the likelihood of a tsunami. The system is also linked to emergency alerts that are issued through mobile phones and radio and television in areas that are most at risk.  Seismic activity has always been a threat to life and limb here, with the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake claiming more than 18,000 lives and devastating towns and communities along hundreds of miles of the north-eastern coastline.  Even today, the scars of that tragedy are clearly visible in districts that are yet to be completely rebuilt and towering sea walls intended to deflect the ocean the next time that a similar event occurs. Whether they will be able to withstand the full power of the Pacific should another tsunami emerge remains to be seen.  In September 2014, Mount Ontake erupted without the slightest warning, killing 63 people who had been out for a day’s hike. It was the worst death toll from a volcanic eruption in the previous seven decades, and demonstrated once again that nature is effectively impossible to predict.  Alarmingly, tradition holds that Tokyo and the surrounding regions experience a major earthquake every 70 years or so. The last big tremor was in September 1923, a 7.9 megathrust quake that triggered a tsunami that was in places nearly 40 feet high and killing as many as 140,000 people.  Experts say that earthquakes do not adhere to timelines; others worry that the “Big One” is overdue and that pressure has been building up in the tectonic plates that sit directly beneath one of the world’s most densely populated cities in the world.  And while the Japanese have always lived with periodic seismic events – a fact of life for a nation that sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and experiences as many as 1,500 tremors every year, most of them too small to be felt by humans – the archipelago does seem to have experienced more than its fair share of extreme weather in recent years. Seventy people died in rural parts of Hiroshima Prefecture in August 2014 after torrential rain weakened mountainsides and caused a series of landslips. A typhoon that hit Osaka in September last year flooded large parts of the city’s airport, built on a man-made island in the bay, and was the largest storm to hit Japan in more than 25 years.  That typhoon has been firmly eclipsed by two similar weather systems that have this autumn forced eastern Japan to batten down the hatches.  Typhoon Faxai swept in from the Pacific on September 9, killing three people and leaving widespread devastation in its wake. Nearly 1 million people were without power and the damage was so widespread that it took two weeks to restore power to some communities.  Super Typhoon Higibis is significantly larger and more powerful than that storm and the people of eastern Japan have heeded the lessons of previous disasters. Shops have run out of food and bottled water, as well as batteries.  After that, there is not much more that anyone can do other than to wait for Sunday morning to assess the scale of the damage.


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