Japan: is the big one coming?

3/15/2011 – We are all sitting around watching the chess tournaments in Monaco and Reyjkavik, but keeping a nervous eye on the enormous crisis unfolding in Japan. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the following tsunami have probably taken tens of thousands of lives, and now there is the danger of a nuclear meltdown. A chess friend in California is tracking the events.

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Tracking the events in Japan

Ken Thompson, computer and computer chess pioneer, was recently in Japan for the announcement of his Japan Prize award. We reported recently on this. Back at home in California, and in his office at Google, Thompson is tracking the events that are now dominating the news. We are in constant contact with him and receiving an alarming assessment of the situation. In view of the global implications of the events we have decided to share some of the information with our readers – although it does not have much to do directly with the subject of our chess news service.


Ken Thompson (right) in discussion with economist and chess grandmaster Ken Rogoff
and GM and author John Nunn, during last December's London Chess Classic

A massive 8.9/9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific Ocean near Northeastern Japan at around 2:46 p.m. (JST) on March 11, causing damage with blackouts, fire and tsunami.

The 9.0 magnitude quake (the fourth-largest recorded since 1900) caused a rift 15 miles below the sea floor that stretched 186 miles long and 93 miles wide. It is driven by the Pacific tectonic plate diving under the North American Plate, sinking Japan downward by about two feet. The huge jolt caused a 33-foot-high tsunami to rush six miles inland over Sendai and the northeastern Japanese coast, sweeping away almost everything in its path.


This destruction is vividly demonstrated in before-after pictures on this site

As Japan's eastern coastline sunk, the tsunami waves rolled in, causing horrendous distruction – probably ten times more than the earthquake itself.


What it looks like up close – maximize the video if you dare

As you certainly know, the earthquake and tsunami destruction triggered to a nuclear crisis in Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant reactors, where workers struggle to cool three hot reactors and six pools containing spent fuel rods. On Sunday Ken told us that Reactor 2 was going to blow, and cause the most serious danger. It dutifully did so on Tuesday morning. Here is video footage:

How this crisis plays out will be in the headline news on an hour-by-hour basis. Germany, where we live, reacted immediately. However, Ken tells us that these explosions and the possible nuclear contamination that may follow should be the least of our worries. Here's what he is tracking:

The above map from the US Geological Survey web site, shows earthquakes world-wide on a realtime basis. The last days have brought hundreds of substantial (magnitude 5+) aftershocks in the region where the original 9.0 earthquake struck. However the shocks are progressing south-westward and towards the capital Tokyo, one of the the world's most populous metropolitan area (with 35 to 39 million people living in close proximity). The subduction rift is clearly moving in the most dangerous direction. You can follow it progress on the USGS page here. And here is an impressive time-lapse visualisation, which plots earthquake data from USGS on Google Maps.

So that's what we need to worry about: the big one hitting the Tokyo area. While we were preparing this report a 6+ has occured south-west of the capital (see the blue square in the map above). The nuclear meltdown scenario is serious, but the global ramifications of the quake that may hit Tokyo are truly horrendous. The Great Canto Earthquake of September 1, 1923, a magnitude 7.9 event, occurred in Tokyo Bay and destroyed the entire metropolis of Tokyo and Yokohama, killing roughly 150,000 people. If Tokyo is seriously injured today, there is a potential for many trillions of dollars in damages coming out of the global economy. So this would have repercussions around the world.


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