Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Winter?

A few vignettes and thoughts about what has been happening recently

Midday local time 17 March 2011, then amended/supplemented later afternoon

The weather has become wintry, it felt like January as I walked in today. It’s snowing and blowing, currently winds are from the west. It’s a real system, and that means even more suffering for people in northern Honshu. Meanwhile, the world’s attention is turned toward Fukushima nuclear reactors.

I talked with my sister this morning, she was worried, and one thing that came up was the orderly and stoic response of Japanese people to the disaster. We talked about how Japan is prepared for these kinds of events, their Self-Defense Force particularly. What does the SDF do when things are calm? One thing is they build giant snow sculptures in Sapporo—a much better keep-fit occupation than many.

A work crew just came in to my office to change my air filter. I wonder if this is routine, or some preparation for potentially shutting off air flow from outside if there is nuclear fallout. Added later: now there are large plastic containers of water in the vestibule of the building --yes, they appear to be preparing for the possibility we shouldn’t go outside.

While they worked, I went to lunch, and while sitting at the table, it seemed to move. It was over very fast, so I decided it wasn’t an aftershock, that I’d “imagined” it, but then got back to my office to a note from Olga (on her shake-sensitive 11th floor), and she felt it.

It was a 5.8 and toward the northern end of the rupture (data from USGS NEIC), closer to us, so it’s plausible, I guess, that we felt it. It's the red one on this map of all the earthquakes since the big one.


y/m/d h:m:s






2011/03/17 04:13:58





Media exposure (of me, for example) is followed by strange and poignant questions via e-mail--the latter such as, “My wedding is planned to take place on the coast of Washington next month, should I worry?” (my answer --no, just be informed and prepared). There there was someone else who was telling people that the biggest tsunami before Indonesia was Taiwan, and using me to fact check (dead wrong). Then today I got a detailed, annotated question from someone who is convinced that an asteroid must have been involved with this disaster because of the fires riding on top the tsunami and fires on tops of some buildings….

Science goes on… or doesn’t

Ironically, the nuclear situation has given earth scientists a break from media attention so they can focus on research in the aftermath, but on the other hand the nuclear situation is further impeding that research. When I went to my host Yuichiro Tanioka’s office today, he was there, seemed relaxed, and had managed to read my e-mails, which I’d tried to keep to a minimum (about my scheduled departure 31 March). Not only is Tanioka-sensei a leading tsunami seismologist, but he is also Director of the Institute of Seismology and Volcanology here at Hokkaido University. After returning Saturday from having been in the earthquake in Tokyo on Friday, he was a wreck by Monday. Today he acknowledged that his respite came from the turn of the media away from the tsunami and toward Fukushima (I felt the same way when media contacts slowed down and then a couple interviews from Australia were cancelled—phew!). Then Tanioka also told me how the nuclear situation is affecting post-earthquake research.

The seismographs in the affected area were destroyed, so seismologists were trying to install new ones to understand all the post megaquake activity. However, the northeastern Honshu region was already virtually inaccessible due to earthquake and tsunami damage, plus rescue efforts, and now scientists are being turned back due to the leaking radiation at Fukushima. Tanioka also said a scientific ship and geophysical crew are all ready in port to go offshore to survey the sea floor, but are prohibited because of potential nuclear fallout.

In recent years, after about a week following an event, tsunami scientists get busy surveying the local tsunami effects. My colleague here from Hokkaido University, Yuichi Nishimura, has actually been out since Saturday morning after the quake, surveying the southern and eastern Hokkaido coastlines, which were affected, but roads and most buildings and power and water are ok, except for very close to the shoreline. We anticipate his report soon.

There are some photos online from another survey from the Chiba area, near Tokyo, moderately hit. This set includes pictures of soil cracking and liquefaction, a tetrapod brought onshore by the tsunami from the nearshore, and some tsunami effects:

There also is a set of photos from a hard-hit area, the Sendai plain, where Koshimura’s team of surveyors last weekend gave up after a little more than a day (no food, water, hotels, blocked roads, etc. etc.). Two things that struck me in these photos: 1) roads already plowed of debris by bulldozers (presumably) or snowplows turned to debris plows? (I speculate) and 2) mud everywhere! I think the mud is probably mostly from unvegetated agricultural fields. We are used to tsunamis leaving sand deposits, it remains for us to determine what factors influenced the deposits in this case.

There are not and will not be for awhile reports from the hardest-hit areas. Read more about the conditions for scientists trying to work (and live!) here in the last few days:

Are You Ready?

To the south of Fukushima, within a closer radius of the reactors, people are leaving or preparing. Japan has evacuated the immediate area, and the US has recommended a wider radius of evacuation to its citizens in that area. Some countries are beginning to recommend evacuation from Japan. In stores, I hear, there is no more bottled water, little or no rice, and no iodine tablets. I heard a medical expert say these tablets are only effective for growing children, I sure hope that’s who is getting them. A friend in the US is trying to send tablets to his friends here, but I also read that mail delivery has dropped to low priority, with no delivery in the most affected areas and slowdowns in many other places, including Sapporo. Highest priority for transport (and fuel) is search and rescue, helping refugees, and initial stages of recovery.

I feel like Hokkaido is a safe place, and that I needn’t try to get on an earlier flight when I have a good exit itinerary on 31 March: Sapporo – Osaka – SFO – SEA. Besides, there are people a lot closer to privation and potential danger than I am. I don’t need to try to take their places.

At my flat, I’ve looked around and consider what I would do if 1) I must stay indoors – not too bad, I have food for awhile; 2) we lose power—not so good, have headlamp, no candles and matches, 3) we lose gas – have plenty of clothes to stay warm, but perhaps not enough food that doesn’t need cooking (should go get some tinned foods?..that shelf was more empty than others two days ago but not as empty as rice shelves); we lose water—have quite a few large bottles right now leftover from a party, but could get more.

Now I am in Sapporo, and I am not expecting all this to take place, but they did just change the air filters and stockpile water in our institute building. Anyway, I’ll stop at the store tonight and maybe buy a few things, or at least be in reporter mode to check the mood of the situation there.

Lost in translation and sure to bring a smile amongst the worries: Report from a friend watching NHK this evening in the US [same after-noon time for me as I have been working and writing here]:

The faces on the screen -- Tepco officials, gov't ministers -- were all male and the two simultaneous translators female. One of the translators spoke several times of today as a "climax". She went on to speak of "douching" the spent-fuel rods in reactor 3. Ok, what was reported as I understand it: The rods, ordinarily submerged in a tank atop the reactor, have instead been exposed to air since Wednesday. If they catch fire they would spew radioactive particles, which would in turn impede further efforts to stabilize the plants. So the government is bringing in water cannons -- the ones used by riot police -- to try to cool those rods. This last-ditch effort is intended to facilitate running a new power line to the plants, in hopes of reactivating pumps for the cooling systems. (Some or all of this would be the climax.)

Final note, then I'm gonna post this: I was talking on skype with my dear friend Tanya in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, some LONG distance north of me, and her father called her cell to say he heard the cyclone we are having in Japan is coming to Kamchatka, and he is worried it will bring radiation with it. Well, there is not a rational basis for this worry, but I told her to tell him don’t worry, I’ll get it first… [not]

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