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Japan's Earthquake Off the (Seismic Risk) Map


on 11 March 2011, 9:51 AM | |  

TOKYO—The most surprising thing about the magnitude-8.9 earthquake that hit Japan today is that it was a surprise. Despite what may be the world's most intensive effort to map faults and assess risks by a notoriously earthquake-prone and earthquake-conscious nation, such a strong quake was not anticipated for the region, says University of Tokyo geophysicist Robert Geller.

The earthquake occurred 130 kilometers east of Sendai and 373 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, along or very near the boundary between two tectonic plates, where the Pacific plate is being drawn under the Japanese islands. Movement along plate boundaries is known to be capable of producing major earthquakes. And Japan's latest national seismic risk map gave a 99% chance of a magnitude-7.5 or greater quake occurring in that area in the next 30 years, Geller says.

Although today's quake technically satisfies that prediction, the logarithmic scale used for measuring the power of earthquakes means that a magnitude-8.9 earthquake releases well over 100 times more energy than does a magnitude-7.5 quake. "I don't think those hazard assessments are meaningful," Geller says.

Geller believes the quake is the strongest to hit Japan since the start of reliable observations over a century ago. It is also more than 1000 times the force of the magnitude-6.3 quake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand, on 22 February.

Authorities are just beginning to count deaths and casualties; it will take much longer to tally damage to buildings and infrastructure. But it is likely to be the tsunami that started hitting the coast barely an hour after the quake that will prove to have the biggest impact on lives and property. Initial television coverage shows that buildings left standing after the shaking were inundated and often swept away by the massive waves. Japan's building code is among the most stringent in the world, but its provisions don't anticipate tsunami effects.

"There is a lot we don't know about the Earth and a lot we are unlikely to know in the future," says Geller. He says the only way to prepare for earthquakes is to "expect the unexpected."

Are There More Major Earthquakes Nowadays?

Not really:

Earthquakes with a magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant in numbers throughout the last century.

However, Dave Santek (CIMSS/SSEC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison points out that there have been stronger earthquakes recently. There were no quakes of 8.5 or stronger in the 1970's, 80's or 90's, but already 4 in the 2000's. Quakes 8.0 and greater also register more since 2000, with 6 in the 1970s, 4 in the 1980s and 6 in the 1990s, yet already 13 in the 2000s.

According to the [United State Geological Survey], it may seem there are more earthquakes today because of more and better communication, and better technology.

But also, says Steve Dutch at the University of Wisconsin, growing population bases in at-risk areas cause more damage and bring more media attention. There is no question that scientific and technological advances lead to better monitoring and study - and more awareness. In 1931 there were about 350 seismograph monitoring stations in the world. Today, says USGS, there are more than 4,000 stations, with more rapid and comprehensive data reporting by satellite and computer.

Danny Hills reminiscing about the great physicist Richard Feynman

2011 Sendai Earthquake News Round-Up

Mar. 12, 2011

2011 Sendai Earthquake News Round-Up

2011 Sendai Earthquake News Round-Up:

Nuclear Plant Explosion: Several injuries reported after an explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant (see video below) caused by a pumping system failure damaged the building housing nuclear reactor No. 1, but did not not damage the reactor itself; French Nuclear Safety Authority: Favorable winds will blow radioactive pollution from explosion out over Pacific; Japanese PM Naoto Kan: I will take all necessary measures to keep residents safe from harm; evacuation area around plant expanded to 12 miles, 45,000 evacuated so far; seawater is being usedin “last-ditch effort” to avoid a meltdown; STRATFOR: Meltdown already taking place; AP: “[M]eltdown may not pose a widespread danger“; FEMA: What to doduring a nuclear power plant emergency; additional tips at SLOG; Reddit AMA: “I live in Fukushima city.”

Latest Figures: 686 confirmed deaths; Kyodo: Death toll could exceed 1,7009,500 reportedly missing in Miyagi tourist town; 4.4million households without power.

Relief Response: Japan sends 50,000 rescuers to hardest hit areas; US sends Navy ships, aircraft, relief teams to aid in rescue efforts; reminder: How you can help.

Around The Internet: Twitter gangs up on CNN reporter for allegedly making Godzilla jokeFamily Guy writer tweets insensitive Pearl Harbor jokeretracts it; Pearl Harbor meme sweeps Facebook; contrary to Internet rumors, Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri is alive and well.

Photos: Boston Globe‘s The Big PictureThe Atlantic‘s In Focus.


Incredible footage of reclaimed ground rupturing in Chiba City. (via.)

Tsunami washes away cars outside Sendai Airport. (via.)

The earthquake as experienced from the 22nd floor of Tokyo office building. (via.)

Further Viewing: Interactive map of videos from CNN iReporters.

Seen from above, the awesome scale of Japan's destruction (big phot...



A whirlpool is seen near Oarai City, Ibaraki Prefecture, northeastern Japan, March 11, 2011. The biggest earthquake to hit Japan on record struck the northeast coast on Friday, triggering a 10-meter (33-foot) tsunami that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings on fire. (REUTERS/Kyodo )


Houses are swept by water following a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City. (REUTERS/KYODO)


A massive tsunami hits the coastal areas of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (REUTERS/KYODO)


Sendai Airport is flooded after a tsunami following an earthquake in Sendai. (REUTERS/KYODO)



An oncoming tsunami strikes the coast in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan March 11, 2011. (REUTERS/KYODO)



A massive tsunami sweeps in to engulf a residential area after a powerful earthquake in Natori.(REUTERS/KYODO)


People evacuate to a street following an earthquake in Sendai, northeastern Japan. (Reuters)


Boats are swept by a wave after a tsunami and earthquake in Asahikawa city. (Reuters)


Houses and buildings burn following earthquake in Iwate Prefecture. (Reuters)


Natural gas storage tanks burn at Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city. (Reuters)


Natural gas storage tanks burn at a facility in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo. (Reuters)


A massive tsunami hits the coastal areas of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Reuters)


An aerial view of a tsunami swamped Sendai Airport in northeastern Japan. (Reuters)


Houses swept by a tsunami smoulder near Sendai Airport in Japan. (Reuters)


Houses burn at night following an earthquake in Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (Reuters)


People stand on top of a building near cars and airplanes among debris swept by a tsunami at Sendai Airport. (Reuters)


People evacuate along train tracks following an earthquake in Tokyo. (Reuters)



Butter Bribes

Tom Nealon examines the history of butter:

There is no evidence that the Romans used butter in their cuisine, (no form of butter appears in the ancient Roman cookery book Apicius) preferring olive oil, but used pure butter “medicinally”, including for making the skin “pliable” and in other situations that are too easy to imagine to be described here. ... Impure butter was viewed by the Greeks and Romans as a sure sign of barbarism and an invitation to be “civilized.” ... It was only after the fall of Rome that it slowly became acceptable to eat butter in polite company. By the Middle Ages, German and French butter fanatics would actually bribe their priests to allow them to eat butter during Lent, until, under pressure from the pro-butter Protestants, the Catholic Church allowed the consumption of butter during Lent during the 16th century.


Partway through "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood," James Gleick describes a technological innovation so transformative that it was heralded as "one of the grand way-marks in the onward and upward march of the human intellect" by the New York Times. "What was the essence of the achievement?" Gleick asks. "'The transmission of thought, the vital impulse of matter.' The excitement was global but the effects were local. … Information that just two years earlier had taken days to arrive at its destination could now be there — anywhere — in seconds. This was not a doubling or tripling of transmission speed; it was a leap of many orders of magnitude. It was like the bursting of a dam whose presence had not even been known." Sound familiar? It should. The telegraph, after all, changed everything when it was popularized in the 1840s; by 1858, a transatlantic cable had put Britain's Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan in direct contact, while news, gossip and commercial orders blazed across the wires. "Some worried that the telegraph would be the death of newspapers," Gleick writes, although "newspapers could not wait to put the technology to work." All of a sudden, information was not just a tool but also a commodity. "Because the telegraph was an information technology," he posits, "it served as an agent of its own ascendency." The story of the telegraph is central to "The Information," which is a wide-ranging, deeply researched and delightfully engaging history — going back to Homer and Socrates (who distrusted written language as a corruption of pure memory) and extending, in loosely chronological fashion, to our contemporary culture of downloads and data clouds — of how we have come to occupy a world defined in bits and bytes.
more from David L. Ulin at the LAT here.


Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_03 Mar. 13 14.27I recently had a long-distance exchange with two very interesting thinkers --the eminent primatologist Frans de Waal, and the philosopherAbraham Stone, himself approaching eminence-- concerning the scientific study of animal intelligence; the epistemological problem of the interpretation of data on animal intelligence; the inadequacy of most 'science writers' to the task of communicating what is at stake in the study of animal intelligence; and other no less interesting matters.

The exchange initially began from what I took to be a typically disappointing science writer'sarticle at Discovery, by Jennifer Viegas, concerning some purportedly new signs of elephant intelligence. Have a look at that article before reading on, so that you might better understand how this exchange got rolling.

I took issue with the author's observation that "[o]ther animals clearly engage in teamwork," while by contrast one of the scientists involved in the study, Joshua Plotnik, "thinks they are 'pre-programmed for it', unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process." I wanted to know, in response, what kind of empirical evidence could ever ground such a distinction. Moreover, I wanted to know whether understanding is really incompatible with pre-programming. Those were my deep concerns about animal-intelligence research. I also expressed a concern about Viegas's style of science writing, namely that the condescension and cutesiness of it (using words like 'yummy' and easy alliterations) did not inevitably transform any intelligence animals might display into the same old familiar circus performance, if now in print or on screen, rather than in the three rings of old.

More here.

Microbes Give Mice Intestinal Fortitude


on 11 March 2011, 2:15 PM | |
Microbial mess. The diversity of gut microbes (left, green) decreases when a pathogenic bacteria (red) comes on the scene (right).
Credit: Claudia Lupp and B. Brett Finlay

VANCOUVER, CANADA—Whether a mouse lives or dies can be a matter of what bugs dwell in its gut. Microbiologists have shown that mice with the right mixture of bacteria survive a potentially fatal infection that causes diarrhea. Researchers had thought the protected mice were hardier genetically. The findings add to the growing understanding of the complex relationship between our health and the bacteria living in and on our bodies. They also add to the growing conviction that it might one day be possible to curb diarrhea, and prevent other diseases, by making sure our guts have the right complement of bacteria.

In the body, microbes outnumber human cells 10 to 1. The same is true of mice. The highest concentrations are in the gut, where the bacteria form a thin layer on the lining. In mice, the pathogen Citrobacter rodentium can disrupt this layer and cause inflammation and diarrhea. This infection is fatal in some mouse strains but not others.

Some researchers thought the survival difference was due to genetics, but they could never find the gene responsible. Microbiologist B. Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and colleagues wondered whether certain microbes in the gut provided protection. They tested the idea by switching out the gut bacteria in a susceptible strain of mice. They used a high dose of antibiotic to kill the native gut bacteria and then fed those mice fecal material from a protected strain.

They observed that microbes in the fecal material took up residence in a susceptible mouse's gut for about a month. These new residents shielded mice against Citrobacter infection, Finlay reported 9 March here at the International Human Microbiome Congress. He and his colleagues also discovered that the gut bacteria from the resistant mice caused an increase in an immune system messenger called IL-22, and when the researchers inhibited IL-22, the mice were more likely to die from diarrhea.

Finlay and colleagues further explored how changes in the gut bacteria affect the severity of an infection. They gave protected mice one of two antibiotic drugs in low doses that altered the abundance of various microbes but didn't kill the bugs. The team then exposed the mice to Citrobacter. One antibiotic had no obvious effect. But the other resulted in much more severe diarrhea. When the researchers dissected these now susceptible mice, they discovered that the mucous layer that typically lines the gut was only half as thick as in protected mice. The shift in the microbial makeup had led to this shrinkage. "By thinning this mucous [layer], we increased the susceptibility to infection," Finlay said at the meeting.

"We know very little about how the different pathogens interact with the bugs that don't cause disease," says immunologist Marcelo Sztein of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "But we should really be looking at the whole system." He hopes that studies such as Finlay's will help clarify how antibiotics might be put to better use. "Different antibiotics might be more effective not just because of the effect on the pathogen but also because of the effect on the [body's natural bacteria]."


Fukushima-core_1Steve Mirsky in Scientific American:

First came the earthquake, centered just off the east coast of Japan, near Honshu. The horror of the tsunami quickly followed. Now the world waits as emergency crews attempt to stop a core meltdown from occurring at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor, already the site of an explosion of the reactor's housing structure.

At 1:30pm EST on March 12, American nuclear experts gathered for a call-in media briefing. While various participants discussed the policy ramifications of the crisis, physicist Ken Bergeron provided most of the information regarding the actual damage to the reactor.

"Reactor analysts like to categorize potential reactor accidents into groups," said Bergeron, who did research on nuclear reactor accident simulation at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. "And the type of accident that is occurring in Japan is known as a station blackout. It means loss of offsite AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of emergency power on site—the diesel generators. It is considered to be extremely unlikely, but the station blackout has been one of the great concerns for decades.

"The probability of this occurring is hard to calculate primarily because of the possibility of what are called common-cause accidents, where the loss of offsite power and of onsite power are caused by the same thing. In this case, it was the earthquake and tsunami. So we're in uncharted territory, we're in a land where probability says we shouldn't be. And we're hoping that all of the barriers to release of radioactivity will not fail."

Bergeron explained the basics of overheating at a nuclear fission plant.

Shrinking Storage


David Isenberg summarizes a website's history of digital storage:

YEAR — Price of a Gigabyte

1981 — $300,000
1987 — $50,000
1990 — $10,000
1994 — $1000
1997 — $100
2000 — $10
2004 — $1
2010 — $0.10

(Hat tip: Cory Doctorow; Photo: Obsolete by Pawel Hynek via JWZ)


From Scientific American:

Fast-facts-japan_1Why was Japan's March 11 earthquake so big? One answer is the large size of the fault rupture as well as the speed at which the Pacific Plate is continuously thrusting beneath Japan, U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) scientist Tom Brocher told KQED News. People felt shaking in cities all over Honshu, Japan's main island. Below are some more facts and figures relating to the causes and consequences of the world'sfifth-largest earthquake since 1900. 

Magnitude, according to USGS
: 9.0

Speed at which the Pacific Plate is smashing into the Japanese island arc
: 6 centimeters (3.5 inches) per year

Speed at which the San Andreas Fault in California is slipping: about 4 centimeters per year

Size of the rupture along the boundary between the Pacific and North America plates: 290 kilometers ( 180 miles) long, 80 kilometers (50 miles) across

Approximate length of Honshu island: 1,300 kilometers

Years since an earthquake of this magnitude has hit the plate boundary of Japan: 1,200 

Duration of strong shaking reported from Japan: 3 to 5 minutes 

Greatest distance from epicenter that visitors to the USGS Web site reported feeling the quake: About 2,000 kilometers

Distance that the island of Honshu appears to have moved after the quake: 2.4 meters

Change in length of a day caused by the earthquake's redistribution of Earth's mass: 1.8 microseconds shorter 

Normal seasonal variation in a day's length: 1,000 microseconds 

Depth of the quake: 24.4 kilometers 

Range of depths at which earthquakes occur in Earth's crust: 0 – 700 kilometers 

Top speed of tsunami waves over the open ocean: About 800 kilometers per hour
Normal cruising speed of a jetliner: 800 kilometers per hour

More here.


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