On March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9.0 Great Tōhoku Earthquake struck Honshu, the main island of Japan at 2:46 pm local time. The epicenter was 30 km deep, located off of the coast. It was the largest earthquake ever to hit Japan and the fourth largest earthquake on record. a rupture occurred at the convergent fault boundary in the Japan Trench and a 300 km long by 150 km wide section of the subduction zone slipped as much as 50 meters, the largest fault slip ever recorded. The Tōhoku region in northeast Honshu experienced violent shaking for six minutes and was shifted east by 2.4 meters. Scientists believe that clay helped lubricate the fault to create such extreme movement because it holds water and becomes slick, removing friction from the plate collision. There is a deep layer of clay on the Pacific plate and as it subducts beneath the North American plate a thin layer is scraped off, leaving an accretionary wedge of clay coating the boundary. Low-frequency infrasound waves generated by the earthquake were even detected 255 km above the earth in space by a satellite.

A colossal tsunami followed the quake caused by a combination of upward thrusting of the seafloor from the earthquake and a submarine mass movement event. Remnants of a 40 km by 20 km rotational slump were observed on the slope of the Japan Trench. Waves as high as 38 meters moved as fast as a jet plane, 700 km/hr and flooded the island up to 10 km inland. The tsunami had record run-up recordings at 38.8 meters above sea level. Abnormally large waved were documented all across the Pacific from the west coast of North America and South America to Russia. Also satellite imagery showed that the waves contributed to Antarctic glacier calving. [youtube][/youtube] [youtube][/youtube]

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes and tsunamis because it is located near multiple late boundaries on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The nation experiences one fifth of the world’s powerful quakes and the word tsunami itself is Japanese. Japan is extremely prepared for these hazards and has heavily invested in preparedness and mitigation plans. Over 1000 seismographs and hundreds of tide sensors are scattered around the islands comprising the world’s most advanced early-warning system. Alerts are sent out automatically over every medium of communication including personal cell phones and loudspeaker systems. Japan has built many hard structures along the coasts such as tsunami walls, flood gates and breakwaters. Building codes are strict and constantly updated with continuous research and assessment on building safety and design. Tall buildings are designed to sway and are set on deep foundations, many supported with shock absorbers. Concrete structures are built with a steel frame to give them ductility to be more resilient to a lateral load. Disaster shelters are prepared in case of emergency and some public spaces in cities are constructed with a secondary purpose as refuge zones. These spaces are cleverly designed as permanent installations ready to house and sustain people at a moment’s notice with underground food and water reserves and innovations such as solar-powered charging stations and benches that turn into stoves for cooking. Disaster preparedness is deeply ingrained into society and has become part of Japanese culture. People constantly practice intensive drills and receive briefings on potential hazards from the time they begin school.

Japan is one of, if not the most prepared nation in the world for these types of hazards. The population is also not considered vulnerable in a country with the third largest GDP in the world that is known for its technological innovation and advancements. Japan can handle earthquakes that would cause considerable damage elsewhere and regularly experiences quakes with a magnitude between 4.0 – 5.0. However, the 2011 “trifecta of tragedy”, earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear accident was the perfect storm. Like the swiss cheese activity in class, everything lined up perfectly to make this one of the worst disasters in history. The death toll as of April 2015 is 15,890, another 2,590 people were reported as missing and presumed dead and 6,152 injuries were recorded. An overwhelming majority of the deaths and injuries were due to the tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, over 25 million tons of debris was generated in the 3 worst affected prefectures and hundreds of fires were started from broken electric and gas lines. The damage has cost Japan $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in history. Considerable economic losses were suffered by other countries around the pacific as well. Response efforts were divided among all departments of the Japanese government who were immediately mobilized and dispatched. Despite their organization, no amount of preparation and prior planning could have anticipated the 2011 catastrophe. Transporting supplies was impeded by the damage to roads and infrastructure and contributed to the physical and psychological distress of refugees. Flooded areas did not drain naturally due to subsidence of the land from the quake. Floodwall failure and standing water further hindered supply distribution and posed an obstacle for search and rescue. Certain areas were only accessible by helicopter for 2 weeks. The combined loss of power from the Fukushima coast, one of Japan’s largest single electric source regions and the shut off of the island’s other reactors caused additional setbacks to emergency response efforts.


A “state of nuclear emergency” was declared because the tsunami also caused the world’s first triple nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency gave the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster a 7 rating on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the highest rating and the same as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. 140,000 people who lived within 20 km of the Fukushima reactors were evacuated and many are still displaced. Radiation continues to leak from the reactors and irradiated water is still being released into the ocean. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) has been unable to remove hundreds of dangerous fuel rods as the clean up process moves into its fourth year. Japan had relied on nuclear power for 30% of its electricity supply prior to the Fukushima accident but most of the 54 reactors in the country have not been reopened. The loss of this power source has contributed to a national energy crisis as Japan has little fossil fuel reserves and now depends on imports for 80-90% of its energy. The psychological effects of the disaster have had a large burden on Japanese society, with a spike in PTSD, depression and suicide rates among people living in the most impacted regions.

I chose this disaster because I find it incredibly fascinating and it has had such monumental consequences that are still being felt and dealt with today. The earthquake and tsunami struck when I was finishing up my senior year of high school so I remember how much it was covered by the news. I am also very interested in the Fukushima nuclear disaster and I have done a lot of research on it but not so much into the actual natural disaster that caused it.

Landslide Prompts Flooding Concerns and Racks Up High Remediation Costs

On Monday a landslide in Albany County, New York prompted a state of emergency declaration. Normans Kill, a creek in the capital region of upstate New York was blocked for almost 200 meters by the displaced sediment, creating a flood risk for a dozen homes in the area. The creek embankment that collapsed is made of unstable clay, according to local government officials. Crews brought in pipes and dug a trench to redirect the water. The slope remains unstable and authorities have been investigating the cause of the slide. The side of the creek in question is owned by the Normanside Country Club who appeared to have started grading work without the proper permit. The construction began in December but the permit wasn’t approved until March. The club began dumping fill near the slope prior to an engineer’s inspection. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is looking into the cause of the slide and advising the city on how to move forward with streambed and slope reparation and stabilization. The state is also working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who are overseeing the cleanup process and long-term remediation. The Albany County Sheriff has estimated that local governments have spent over $100,000 in response to the landslide. The total cost of repairing the damage and stabilizing the area will likely cost in the millions of dollars. Albany is seeking reimbursement for the expenses and looking to the state government for financial assistance. Some of the facilities at the Normanside Country Club remain closed and on the other side of Normans Kill the Albany’s Capital Hills Golf Course has closed nine of its holes.

normans kill aerialView from a state police helicopter of the mudslide into the Normans Kill on Monday, April 20, 2015 in Delmar, N.Y. The Normanside Country Club is seen at left. (Courtesy of New York State Police Department) Photo: Lori Van Buren

This photograph by Albany County Executive Dan McCoy shows the mudslide that's blocked the Normans Skill between Albany and Bethlehem, triggering fears of flooding on both side of the creek. (Dan McCoy)

State of Emergency in Chile following Volcanic Eruption

A state of emergency was declared yesterday night in Southern Chile following an eruption of the Calbuco volcano. Chile is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire and has the world’s second largest chain of volcanoes with about 500 that are potentially active. Calbuco is considered one of the top three most dangerous volcanoes in the country. President Michelle Bachelet stated that the situation is “serious and unpredictable”. The 6,500-foot volcano erupted twice and over 5,000 people were evacuated. No deaths have been reported and water supplies have been sent to the region. The interior minister warned citizens of possible lahars and flooding if there is significant snow melt. Flights in Chile and Argentina have been cancelled as winds blow ash as far as 630 km. Pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds billowing from the volcano entered the stratosphere and images captured lightning flashes in the cloud field. The second eruption was so powerful that it created gravity waves in the mesosphere.

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The Calbuco volcano erupts near Puerto Varas, Chile,

Earthquake Off the Coast of Taiwan, Tsunami Warning Issued in Japan

According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck 71 km (44 mi) off the coast of Hualien, Taiwan Monday morning local time. Earlier reports from Japan said the quake was a 6.8. The epicenter was 18 miles deep though it was originally estimated by the Japan Meteorological Agency to be much shallower. Tremors were felt all over Taiwan including in the capital, Taipei, where witnesses reported buildings shaking. An apartment building in New Taipei City caught fire after an electrical box was destroyed by the earthquake. One man died in the fire and another was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Another building in the city was evacuated for a gas leak. Japanese authorities warned citizens of a possible tsunami as high as one meter that could impact multiple islands in the Okinawa chain. Warnings were issued over the radio and people were advised to move away from coasts and head to higher ground following the typical Japanese tsunami preparedness plan. Boats sailed far out to sea to avoid the damage of a tsunami wave in shallow water. However, the Japan Meteorological Agency cancelled the warning an hour after the earthquake was reported after observing no abnormal wave movements. The chief of  Taiwan’s Seismology Center Kuo Kai-wen explained that more earthquakes could be likely, stating “This was the third quake measuring more than 6.0 magnitude in Taiwan so far this year — we would not rule out the likelihood that there might be more strong quakes of this scale”.

Wildfires Burn as Minnesota is Experiencing High Fire Risk This Spring

Saturday a fire charred 5 acres of land 10 miles north of downtown Duluth, Minnesota. Nearby homes were evacuated and at least 11 fire departments responded. Helicopters were dispatched to drop water onto the flames. The fire started around 1:45 p.m. from a resident burning cardboard in a burn barrel that got out of control. Embers sparked a second fire that was quickly contained. A couple of other small fires were also reported. The region has been experiencing a drought this spring and conditions yesterday were favorable for a fire with winds blowing up to 25 mph. Smoke was visible for miles and roads were closed to allow fire personnel to and from the scene. There were no injuries but two outbuildings and an RV camper were destroyed. This spring, fire and forestry officials in Minnesota have been faced with an increased wildfire hazard due to low humidity, strong winds and a winter with little snow. Not only does snow provide moisture, it also compacts grass and ground cover so there is less to catch fire. The Northland government is being stringent with burning permits in the area because of the current risk level and are urging people to be extremely cautious. Dry and windy conditions are expected again for tomorrow, continuing the heightened risk of wildfires.

Storms Bring Severe Flooding to Kentucky

Last Friday brought heavy rains to Kentucky, part of a string of thunderstorms that moved thorough the South and Midwest. Flash floods in Louisville led to the evacuation of many residents over the holiday weekend. Over 160 people had to be rescued with boats and many people remain displaced, some in shelters set up by the Red Cross. More than 6 inches of rain fell overnight in the region, covering roads and closing schools. Waste disposal sites in the city have stayed open extra hours after the floodwaters subsided to allow residents to clean up flood debris. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear declared a statewide emergency on Saturday, allowing local officials immediate access to state resources for recovery and safety efforts.”By declaring a state of emergency for the entire state, we can deploy any needed state assistance, such as National Guard troops, without delay.” Beshear said.

The Mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer also declared a local state of emergency as the city seeks federal and state aid. Emergency management officials are working to assess flood damage to homes, public buildings and infrastructure to send estimated damage costs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Certain thresholds must be met in order to qualify for federal assistance. Over 100 homes must be “damaged beyond repair and uninhabitable” for Louisville homeowners to be eligible to receive low-interest loans. Clean-up costs and damage to state-owned property must meet or exceed $2.6 million in expenses to qualify for federal assistance. Currently the University of Louisville has reported at least $1.1 million in damage and the work needed to repair washed out sections of highway KY 22 is estimated to cost over $1 million. If the city’s claims are eligible, FEMA will pay 75 percent of the expenses and the remaining 25 percent will fall on the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Louisville Metro Government.

rainfall totals kentucyFlood waters in Downtown Louisville Flood waters in Downtown Louisville

Record Super Typhoon Maysak in the Western Pacific

An unusually strong and dangerous super typhoon is sweeping through the Western Pacific headed towards the Philippines. Currently the storm has maximum sustained winds of 160 mph and is a category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Maysak first developed into a tropical storm on Friday and now has typhoon-force winds extending 45 miles out from its center. Sea surface temperatures in the Pacific were 1.8 – 3.8°F warmer than normal in the region which helped fuel the typhoon. You can watch a live satellite loop of Maysak as it moves through the Pacific.

Maysak marks a record storm season since reliable records have been kept, dating back to 1945. Typhoon season is typically between April and October but Maysak is the fourth named storm in the western Pacific this year. 2015 is the first time that there have been two typhoons category 3 or higher during the first three months of the year. Also, Maysak is only the third super typhoon ever to form before April 1.

The Chuuk State (pop. ~49,000) , a group of Micronesian islands, was hit by the storm on Sunday afternoon local time. Maysak was a category 1 when it made landfall with max winds reaching 80 mph. About 8.6 in of rain fell over 24 hours as the eye passed 5 nautical miles north of the islands. It is estimated that about 95% of homes, built mainly out of tin, were destroyed. Residents have been without access to water or power since Sunday morning due to fallen trees and power lines. 5 people have been reported dead as of this morning. The Yap Islands (pop. ~11,000) are the next target in Maysak’s path, located 931 miles away from Chuuk. Rain and winds will begin this evening and the typhoon is forecasted to be a category 3 or 4 when it makes landfall. Winds could reach 130 mph and rainfall is expected to be between 4 – 10 inches. Other islands in the region have been issued tropical storm warnings and typhoon watches.

Maysak is likely to approach the Philippines this weekend and is forecasted to make landfall Sunday, passing northeast of Manila. However, wind speeds are expected to drop below 100 mph as the storm deteriorates to a category 2 or 1 due to increasing wind shear from the north west.


Volcanic Explosion in Pacific Creates New Island in Tonga

In December of last year, an underwater volcano began erupting and has created a new island in the South Pacific. Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai is a submarine volcano located between two islands belonging to the Pacific nation of Tonga. Located 65km (40mi) southwest of the main island Tongatapu, the new land mass is 500 meters long and the highest point is estimated to be about 250 meters. A large crater is visible in satellite photos and the eruption spilled over joining it to one of the existing islands.

A new volcanic island rising from the Pacific Ocean - March 2015.

This video from January shows the eruption of Hunga Tonga: [youtube][/youtube]

These satellite images show the islands before and after the eruption:

Two islands of Hunga Tonga by satellite Satellite image showing two islands and large crater

Recently, three locals from Tonga set foot on the island and took photos of the newly formed land mass. 63 year old Gianpiero Orbassano, a former photographer, told reporters that he could feel heat radiating from the surface. The crater is now filled with bright green water, visible in the photos, that smells like sulfur and chemicals according to Orbassano. The brave adventurers stated that climbing the island was not too difficult, didn’t seem dangerous and they believe it has strong potential to become a tourist attraction.


However, Matt Watson, a natural hazards professor at the University of Bristol, expressed his concerns with the stability of the land mass. The sediments are loose and unconsolidated, and therefore unsafe to walk on. “It’s formed by fragmentation of magma, so it’s basically small pieces of rock on top of each other that have formed an island” he explained to the BBC. This also makes the new island vulnerable to waves and ocean currents.

Ohio River Flooding for the Second Weekend in a Row

Today at 3 pm the Ohio River stage was measured at 51.7 feet. The flood stage, at which height the river begins to flood the surrounding land, is 52 feet. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for Cincinnati for this weekend. Recently, the area has had considerable snow and rain leading to saturated soil and more rain is on its way. A hazardous weather outlook was put into effect this morning for the region. Beginning tonight, the rain is expected to increase and become heavy Friday morning with an 80-100% chance of precipitation until Saturday night when it will end. Estimates show Cincinnati receiving up to 2 inches of rain between Friday morning and Saturday afternoon. It is projected that the Ohio River will rise up to 55 feet, 3 feet above flood stage and the highest it has been since 2011.

This comes immediately following flooding last weekend when rainfall combined with above average snow melting caused the river to rise to 53 feet, putting many bordering areas underwater. Flooding in the next couple of days will be more widespread as the water expected to be 2 feet higher than last week.

Earlier today Metropolitan Sewer District workers began putting up floodgates in anticipation of the looming flood hazard. The mile-and-a-half long floodwall was constructed in the 1940s and closing the floodgates is a laborious process. There are auxiliary gates that will not be utilized this weekend located further from the river’s edge for backup if the river reaches 57 feet. The Metropolitan Sewer District will keep the gates closed until at least Monday because the river will remain above flood stage all weekend. According to the weather service, backwater flooding could affect the surrounding region and a flood watch is going into effect Friday evening for Greater Cincinnati as well as southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana.

635617798970285926-FloodGate-0002     A man walks around a flooded area near the Ohio River   Ohio River at Cincinnati

Wildfire Burns Through Cape Town

A wildfire has been blazing in Cape Town, South Africa for three days and has destroyed thousands of acres of land. The fire has burned through beautiful scenery and rare plants in Tabletop Mountain National Park overlooking Cape Town, and has destroyed 13 homes and a five-star hotel, the Tintswalo Atlantic Lodge. A small fire began on Sunday and was controlled but a bigger fire started on Monday morning and has continued to burn. The situation has been exacerbated by record high temperatures reaching 104 F and strong winds which changed direction causing a larger area to be affected. About 150 firefighters have been working around the clock and the South African government is planning on bringing in 250 more from around the country. Helicopters have also been dumping water from the Atlantic Ocean onto the flames. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from nearby areas and dozens have been treated for smoke inhalation but there have been no deaths. Cape Town is a huge international tourist destination and is supposed to host the Cape Town Cycle Tour, a 109km bike race, on Sunday. According to Yahoo News, the race is the “largest timed cycling event in the world”, and has 35,000 entrants from around the world.

 _81398030_81397625 cape-town-18