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Japan's apocalypse: We should always fear our unstable planet

By Malachi O'Doherty

There are no major unstable fault lines running through Ireland. We never get an earthquake so bad that it couldn't be mistaken for a bus going past.

The disaster in Japan presents a reminder that we live on an unstable planet. It also confronts a modern, technologically advanced nation with the question of whether it can survive where it is.

Some of the reports in the days after the earthquake were naively grounded in a sense that these events are rare.

The quake had shifted the coastline and the tsunami had erased all life and most built structures from the earth it rolled over.

Unthinking commentators said that this had been “the worst Japanese earthquake ever”. What they meant was that it was one of the greatest resettlings of the Earth's crust since we started keeping records.

In geological time, the span in which tectonic plates shift about, this is a blink.

Past earthquakes have given us the Himalayas.

We have seen more than half-a-million people killed in just two of the biggest earthquakes in the last six years.

And every one of these calamities forces us to readjust our thinking.

The Haiti earthquake taught us that poor and ill-prepared countries suffer the most. But Japan is modern and was ready and waiting for ‘the big one’.

The death toll, currently estimated at 17,000, is horrific and the damage to nuclear facilities makes plain that the country was just not well enough prepared at all.

The hard part for us is comprehending the scale of the damage. The death toll in Japan is about eight times that of 9/11, though barely a 10th of that of the Haiti earthquake.

More difficult to grasp still is the impact of the damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima.

One stream of experts tell us that the worst exposure so far would be less than the equivalent of a chest X-ray; yet countries not renowned for their technological ineptitude or hysteria are telling their people to leave if they can, or to stay much further away than the Japanese guidelines advise.

How does a country prepare to be shaken at its foundations? Well, by building houses that won't collapse in rubble like Haiti's did. But then, New Zealand was supposed to be geared up for a good shake; it just didn't expect it to happen right under the city of Christchurch.

The mind reels before the contemplation of what nature has done and yet might do to our flimsy human structures.

Until 2004, tsunamis were a topic for children's encyclopaedias and scary science documentaries, as real as, but no more urgent, than the Yellowstone supervolcano which is due any century now.

Yet none of this is new, except the human contribution to the danger: the cities built on fault lines, the nuclear power stations.

Major cities that have had earthquakes before and might again include San Franscisco and Jerusalem.

The Earth takes its time about these eruptions, then rocks with complete indifference to us.

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