Saturday, July 12, 2014

Japan's Earthquake Early Warning System

Dealing with earthquakes is something you have learn to do if you're going to survive in Japan.  The summer we spent out here before moving permanently was full of small Tohoku aftershocks, and at the time they seemed like such a novelty - kind of exciting in fact.  Then we moved out here for real and they suddenly seemed much more sinister.  This was real life, and a real risk we were taking.  And now, living on the eighteenth floor we feel even the slightest sway.

Over time my panic has dissipated.  I don't think there is anywhere in the world free of natural disasters, be they tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, or even just droughts and blizzards.  We take the steps we can to protect ourselves, like having an earthquake kit, a plan of where to go and how to reach each other if a major one happened when John and I are in different places, and knowing safety protocols like where evacuation areas are (our neighborhood doesn't have a risk of fires, so we don't have to evacuate.)  I'm now at a place where I try to stay ignorant of how overdue Tokyo may or may not be for a giant earthquake (because there is some scary stuff on the internet, but reading it isn't going to do me any good) and trusting Japan's ability to handle earthquakes.  I've said it before, but newer construction here is fantastic - rolling foundations and reinforced building that are actually safer the higher up you go.  In the Tohoku earthquake, less than 8% of deaths were from earthquake damage, it was almost entirely tsunami devastation, and Tokyo, being in a bay, is more protected than much of the coastline.

Japan also has an earthquake early warning system that detects p-waves (the earliest, less destructive waves) immediately alerting new organizations and cell phone companies.  Cell phone companies then automatically send warnings to their customers (on the iphone you can enable emergency alerts under settings.)  These warnings are supposed to give 10 to 90 seconds of warning depending on how close you are to the epicenter and how quickly the quake builds in strength.  These warnings can allow people to take cover, cars to pull over if they're driving, doctors to stop surgery etc.  They can also scare you to death if they go off around 4:30 in the morning like one did last night.

These alerts sound great, right?  Totally lifesaving.  But I'm still a little unsure of them, they don't seem to happen all that reliably, and when they do I haven't always seen any results.  In the year and a half we've lived here I've experienced four.  The first two only vibrated my phone like a text or email, but the later two came with a screaming alarm.  (I always keep my phone on vibrate, so any noise it makes is startling)  The first one terrified me. It said Emergency Alert in English, and then a bunch of Japanese followed.  I dashed into the nearest convenience store just so I wouldn't be alone if a disaster struck, but nothing happened and I slunk out five minutes later.  The second came in English and alerted me that North Korea had pointed missiles at Japan.  I'd already heard that in the news, so it seemed a little unnecessary.  The third happened last year in a starbucks when suddenly everyone's phone went off.  Everyone grew very quite and waited but nothing happened.  It turned out to be a malfunction predicting a catastrophic earthquake in Nara that never materialized (thank goodness!)  Last night's was the first I've ever seen any result from.  John and I woke up terrified and disoriented before we figured out what was going on.  About ten seconds later the shaking started, and we laid in bed listening to our paintings bang against the wall wondering how much worse it would get.  It turned out to be a 6.8 in Fukushima, but honestly we felt a stronger one in the night a couple months ago.  Who knows why we never got an alert from that one.  I'm glad there is a system in place, but I wish I understood it better.

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