Another Massive Earthquake Hits Japan; Tsunami Warning Sounded

Japan got hit by yet another earthquake early today morning at about 8:31 UTC. The magnitude of the quake is 7.4 on the Richter scale and a tsunami warning has been issued.

The USGS reported the magnitude of the quake as 7.4 on the Richter Scale band also reported an aftershock measuring a massive 6.2 following the quake. The depth of the epicenter is 33 km and the epicenter lies 333 km from Sendai.

Location of the epicenter (Courtesy: USGS)

Even Tokyo felt the tremors, but there has been no reports of any damage of death. The 1-m high tsunami warning is still on for the Miyagi prefecture, which was badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami. The devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered no further damages. The quake wasn’t strong enough to create a pacific wide tsunami.

Japan lies near the fault of four massive plates – the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate and the Phillipine Sea plate. This makes it particularly susceptible to the strike-slip earthquakes, in which the plates just slip against one another. Massive tectonic forces operating at these faults can cause huge earthquakes.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) has more:

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eventpage/usc000e5n9#summary

Idiocy Redefined: Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Not Being Able To Predict Quake Impact

When Einstein said that human stupidity knows no bounds, he wasn’t kidding. Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been found guilty of “multiple manslaughter” and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime? They couldn’t predict the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which was bad enough to kill 310 people in the city.

The L’Aquila devastation

Incorrect warning

In 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake ravaged the city and these seven people had issued warnings which said that there is not much to be worried about. Tremors felt before 6th April, 2009 (the day of the quake) were not properly heeded by this group of scientists and, according to the prosecution, they delivered “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information. Thus, they have committed a crime. In addition to the six-year sentence, they have been barred from holding any public office ever again.

Revisiting the not-so-golden times?

This reminds me of the medieval times, when fortune tellers and soothsayers in court could be beheaded for making the wrong prediction. But haven’t we progressed from those dark days of ignorance? Weather science, and especially seismology, the science of earth movements, is a very unpredictable area of knowledge. We hardly know anything about the exact mechanism of the cause of earthquakes and thus we cannot predict it.

It’s not as if you’re looking into a crystal ball…

One of the damning statements from the prosecution bench came from one of their witnesses. Guido Fioravanti had called his mother on that night, just after the first tremor had struck. He says:

I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.

He lost his father to the quake.

Just not possible

But the issue is bigger. The question is how we view science. Science is very accurate about many things, but climate science is not one of them. Are we going to stop making predictions? What about the numerous times the scientists have got the path of a cyclone correct? Why is it so difficult to understand that the parameters involved are just too many in number and that it’s impossible to track every one of them with the demanded accuracy? It’s difficult to even predict how the parameters influence the system and one another!

And thus, the human race wallows in stupidity.

Plate Tectonics on Mars!

Mars is more similar to Earth than you might think! For one, Mars also has tectonic motion, says a UCLA scientist. Yes, there are tectonic plates on Mars that move, create huge gorges and also develop prominent fault lines, just like they do on Earth. But then, they are not as similar as a naïve generalization might suggest.

Prof. An Yin, professor of Earth and space sciences explains why:

Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.

Deeper and Longer than anything else!

At the center of his research, lies the huge canyon between two regions, called the Valles Marineris (Latin for “Valley of Mariner”, after the Mariner Mars craft). With vertical cliffs, jagged rocks and a length of nearly 2500 km – about 9 times that of the Grand Canyon here on Earth – this is clearly a geologic goldmine! How did it form?

The central part of the Valles Marineris (Courtesy: Google)

Yin argues that the forces at play are the familiar forces which generate steep cliffs here on Earth, namely the tectonic forces. The Valles Marineris, he argues, is actually a fault line and the forces have pushed up and submerged rocks, just like in Death Valley, California, which was also formed by tectonic action. And just for records of the superlatives, this is the deepest and longest canyon known in the Solar System.

Plates

The plates on Mars number just two, as compared to seven on Earth. They also move much slower than their terrestrial cousins. Mars being about half the size of Earth explains this slow motion – the initial ball of molten material was much more stable and there was less thermal energy to drive the whole process, which would’ve fragmented the crust even further. However, Yin thinks that the planet is on its way to becoming more fractured.

What About Mars-quakes?

Slow movement between plates and just one stable fault line means that Mars-quakes are way less frequent than earthquakes. The rate of movement hasn’t been ascertained – it’s just that it’s slow! Yin, who uses data obtained from the satellite images taken by the THermal Emission Imagine System (THEMIS) aboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and also from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), thinks more data collected in the next year or so will help in answering these questions.

Prof. Yin’s paper is set to appear in the journal Lithosphere soon.

Why No Tsunami After Giant Indonesia Quake, Ask Surprised Scientists

While the world has heaved a sigh of relief that the giant Indonesian quakedid not generate any tsunami, scientists are puzzled. Given the large magnitude of the quake, there should have been a tsunami, especially since the epicenter wasn’t very deep (just 33 km below the surface) and it lies directly beneath the sea. The question is really this then: Why was there such a huge tsunami during the 2004 quake, measuring 9.3 on the Richter Scale, while this one, just slightly weaker at 8.6 magnitude, didn’t generate anything even remotely similar?

The location of the quake that struck Indonesia. (Courtesy: BBC)

Two Important Factors

Preliminary investigations by geologists point to two factors which together contributed to the diminished effect. One is the strike-slip fault line and the other is that the earthquake occurred within a plate, rather than at a subduction zone. Let me explain this one sentence and the orgy of technical terms used.

Subduction Zone

Subduction zone refers to the zone at which two tectonic plates join. In this zone, plates may get submerged or raised. Subduction zones are regions where the major volcanoes of the world lie in, and thus is given the name “Ring of Fire”. Typically, these occur in the oceans. The entire of the Hawaiian region, for example, lies in the subduction zone. The really major earthquakes have all happened in this zone.

Subduction zone

The present earthquake didn’t happen at a subduction zone. The epicenter was about 150 km from the nearest subduction zone. No plate was submerged or raised. It was a really big intra-plate quake. What has surprised scientists is how big this quake actually was. More of this after a bit.

Strike Slip Fault

The earthquake occurred on a strike-slip fault, which means that the two adjacent plates slid past each other, releasing the built up tension, rather than submerge and rise. This is THE crucial difference between this quake and the 2004 one. The 2004 quake occurred on a normal fault. Land (the sea bed) was violently raised, while another part was submerged. The released tension was directed upwards, rather than sideways, causing the huge waves.

Strike-slip fault. Note how the landmasses slide past each other.
Normal Faulting. One can see the displaced striations and that makes it clear that the rock has been uplifted and submerged along the fault-line.

I want to ram home this crucial point: the difference was the presence of shear in the present earthquake. The fault line sheared (or pulled apart horizontally, along the ground), rather than jut upwards, like it had done during the devastating 2004 earthquake.

Formation of a tsunami.

Scientists are still learning new things though. They are surprised as to how a strike-slip earthquake can be so strong in magnitude. The record was held by the giant 1906 San Francisco earthquake, along the strike-slip San Andreas fault, which measured 7.8 on the Richter Scale.

A Tsunami did form!

Strictly speaking, a tsunami was generated. The Indonesian coast saw the increase of water level by about 1 m or 3.3 ft. However this is nothing compared to the about 30 m or 100 ft waves generated by the 2004 earthquake. The land however has shifted by nearly 70 ft in the northeast-southwest direction.

Residents left their homes in search of higher ground in Banda Aceh, once the tsunami alert was sounded. (Photo Courtesy: National Geographic)

All tsunami watches, issued for all countries across the Indian Ocean, had been lifted by yesterday night itself. Lucky definitely, but humanity needs all the luck it can get right now.

Massive Earthquake Strikes Off Indonesian Coast; Tsunami Watch Issued [UPDATED]

A massive 8.9 magnitude Earthquake has just struck off the coast of North Sumatra, Indonesia about 400 km away from Banda Aceh. Banda Aceh is the same region which was devastated by the 26th December, 2004 Asian tsunami. A red alert has been sounded and a tsunami warning has also been issued.

UPDATE at 1720 on 11th April: There has been no reports of any tsunami that has been formed. The chances of a tsunami being generated are diminishing with time.

UPDATE: The strength of the earthquake has just been revised from 8.9 to 8.7.

Location on World Map

View Larger Map

Though weaker than that horrific earthquake, which measured 9.6 on the Richter scale, this present one is also a very strong earthquake in its own right. The earthquake struck at 08:38 UTC with its epicenter being 33 km below the surface. The epicenter lies 431 km from Banda Aceh.

The depth of the Earthquake at various points. (Courtesy: US Geological Survey)

Countries under tsunami watch

The Tsunami watch has been issued for the coasts of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, Maldives, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Mauritius, Reunion, Seychelles, Pakistan, Somalia, Oman, Madagascar, Iran, UAE, Yemen, Comores, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, South Africa and Singapore.

Follow this link for the tsunami watch info: http://ptwc.weather.gov/?region=3&id=indian.TSUIOX.2012.04.11.0845

    Predicted Arrival Time for Tsunami for Indian Coastline, if a Tsunami is generated:

GREAT NICOBAR 1507 IST 11 APR
LITTLE ANDAMAN 1546 IST 11 APR
PORT BLAIR 1602 IST 11 APR
NORTH ANDAMAN 1622 IST 11 APR
CHENNAI 1657 IST 11 APR
KAKINADA 1735 IST 11 APR
TRIVANDRUM 1938 IST 11 APR
MANGALORE 1906 IST 11 APR
BOMBAY 2138 IST 11 APR

We will keep you updated with the latest as we get them.

Japan’s Nuclear Problem Update: How Radiation From Fukushima Affects America’s West Coast

The reach of atmospheric winds is long. The latest demonstration of this comes from the ruined Japanese power plant Fukushima. Sea water around Fukushima, rich in neutrons from the nuclear matter, was causing a spike in the amount of atmospheric sulfur over the Californian coast. Sulfur is a toxic element in itself and forms oxides which are just as toxic. It is also a major contributor of acid rain.

Fukushima after the disaster

What happened?

This is what was happening at Fukushima. On 13th March, 2011, two days after the deadly tsunami wrecked Fukushima, engineers began pumping seawater into the power plant, so as to keep the nuclear core cool, since the cooling system was not functioning due to loss of power. Lightly radioactive seawater was drained out of the power plant. Neutrons streamed out of the water, knocking against chlorine atoms, converting them into a radioactive isotope of sulfur. The sulfur combined with oxygen in seawater, especially since the warm water provided enough thermal energy for the chemical reaction. A part of this sulfur dioxide bubbled through the water and entered the atmosphere as a gas and another part dissolved in the sea water. Further, when the water hit the hot core, it instantly vaporized, again releasing large amounts of hot elemental sulfur into the atmosphere. Both air currents and ocean currents carried the sulfur rich air or water to the western shores of America.

The observed data and extrapolation

The sulphur peak in the atmosphere was noticed on March 28, 2011, 15 days after the pumping started. According to a study conducted by chemists at the University of California, San Diego, – the first quantitative study of the disaster – about 400 billion neutrons were released per square meter of the cooling pools of liquid in the power plant. This rate stayed constant from 13th March to 20th March. The mechanism of producing radioactive sulphur is well understood from cosmic ray studies, but this is the first time such a process is being noticed near the surface. The study measured 1501 atoms of radioactive sulfur in sulfate particles per cubic meter of air, much much higher than normal levels.

For the levels of sulphur noticed at California to be correctly correlated with sulphur levels over Fukushima, the team calculated that the levels of sulfur ought to be 365 times that over California.

As always, even disasters provide opportunity for science to study different processes. Thiemens, the Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego, says

We’ve really used the injection of a radioactive element to an environment to be a tracer of a very important process in nature for which there are some big gaps in understanding.

Maybe in this case, it’s just too inhumane to say that every cloud has a silver lining.

News via UCSanDiego

Strong Earthquake Strikes North-East Japan; Tsunami Alert Sounded

Japan’s earthquake woes continue. A relatively large earthquake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale, hit north-eastern Japan, yesterday night at 10:06 PM EST, triggering fears of a minor rerun of the gigantic quake, which struck Japan earlier in March. A tsunami alert has been sounded. This is the same region affected by the massive March quake.

The earthquake struck 6 miles off the east coast of Honshu and the epicenter was located underneath the ocean floor at a depth of 34.9 km or 21.7 miles. The strength on the Richter Scale was 7.1 and can, thus, be called a large quake.

The location of the Earthquake - 6 miles offshore (Credit: US Geological Survey)

Initial reports suggest that no significant damages have been incurred due to this recent earthquake. Locals have been evacuated and workers at the Fukushima Plant, which is currently undergoing repairs, have been moved to higher ground. After March’s devastating earthquake, which left Fukushima crippled, Tokyo Electric Power has confirmed that no further damage has been inflicted.

The Fukushima Power Plant

Tsunami alerts have been sounded, but so far, there have been no reports of any tsunami. The earliest alerts sounded warned of a 50 cm to a meter high tidal wave. Though puny by the March tsunami standards, authorities are taking no risks.

This earthquake appears to be an aftershock of the massive 9.1 March quake, but scientists are yet to confirm that. While the March quake shifted geological features and changed the tectonic map of the nearby region, yesterday’s quake is not expected to do anything of that ilk.

Fukushima Update:

The cooling system is in place and fully functional at the Fukushima Power Plant. Even though the plant is far from operational, it looks good on its path to recovery. Probably, Fukushima will be closed down forever, but it needs to be restored to some steady state before the close-down, so that it doesn’t pose any risks to the environment or to the people around it.

Volcano Erupts In South Chile: Argentine City Hit, Evacuation In Full Swing

A Chilean volcano, Puyehue volcano, of the Cordon Caulle volcanic range in the Andes mountains erupted after 50 years yesterday, the 4th of June. Located about 500 miles south of the capital city of Santiago and standing about 2,240 meters high, the volcano has been spewing volcanic ash for the past two days, prompting war-like evacuation from the neighbouring towns. The ash plume stands at a massive 6.2 miles, as of today.

Check out the position of the crater on Google maps here. Go to street-view on the crater and get a beautiful view.

The Argentine city of San Carlos de Bariloche, just across the border, has been the worst hit. It has been raining volcanic ash in the city for the past day, starting 4:00 AM yesterday, local time. Residents have been asked to stay in. The roads are covered with a thick layer of ash. The sun has been blocked out and due to the ash in the air, visibility is near zero. The airport has been closed down. Residents have been advised to brace for prolonged ashfall and to store up ration as soon as they can go out of their homes.

The ashplume extends 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) into the sky

Evacuation is going on at a tremendous rate and as many as 3500 people have been evacuated from 22 nearby settlements. The volcano is still spewing ash at an unabated rate forcing flight cancellations of many international flights. The whole scene is eerie with frequent flashes of lightning lighting up the dark sky and the intermittent showers of ash and pumice.

The last eruption happened in 1960, followed by a massive 9.5 magnitude earthquake. Authorities are currently on high alert after a series of tremors. The National Emergency office estimated an average rate of 230 tremors per hour.

Eternal City Emptied: Rome Under Grip Of Earthquake Prophecy Fear

If  you’re  planning to visit Rome anytime today or tomorrow, you might be greeted by people fleeing the city and long traffic jams due to that. The reason is a prophecy is due to  Raffaele Bendandi, the “earthquake prophet”, who  prophesied  a few decades ago that Rome would be razed to the ground in a devastating earthquake on 11th of May. Apparently, the residents of the Eternal City don’t believe it to be all that eternal.

Bendandi was known to be close to Mussolini. During the 20’s and 30’s he is said to have predicted a few earthquakes, earning him enough fame. Mussolini even knighted Bendandi! With an apparent prediction and the long reach of the internet, the news of the prediction is spreading fast – and along with it, panic.

Bendandi believed that  occurrence  of earthquakes happened because of the position of the moon, earth, sun and the other planets, and based on certain ‘calculations’, he hit upon a number of dates when Earthquakes might strike and even pointed out the place. Obviously, there has been a number of misses, but he’s believed to have predicted the Fruili earthquake of 1976.

Many offices remain closed today and others reported a record number of leave applications. Schools are expected to record attendance of less than one-fifth.

Raffaele Bendandi, the 'earthquake prophet'

Scientists are working actively to quell the fears. The National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), Italy, has been uploading educational videos on Youtube and will be holding an open day today where the public can chat with geologists. They are stressing on the fact that it is “impossible to predict an earthquake in Rome tomorrow”, as  Gabriele Scarascia Mugnozza, director of the department of earth sciences at Sapienza University of Rome, put it.

People are not ready to take chances, though, reflecting yet again, how easy it is for superstition and false claims to interfere with people’s lives.

Earthquakes: The Science of Shaking Earth

There is simple science behind the quake that shook Japan recently and those that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. We consider here, only those earthquakes that are caused by forces arising from beneath the earth’s surface, commonly called tectonic forces.

Our earth’s crust is broken up into many fragments, all floating on semi-solid magma in the mantle of the earth. These fragments, called tectonic plates, are thus capable of moving, albeit very slowly and just a bit each year. Stress can build up along the edges between the plates if one cannot move against the other. Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates suddenly sliding on each other at edges where they meet. The earth shakes as huge amounts of energy are released into the surrounding medium.

tectonic plates

There are two types of waves by which energy is transferred. One is called the primary or P wave, the other, secondary or S wave. They are also fundamentally different. The P wave travels much faster than the S wave. The P wave travels by compressing the ground at certain points and stretching it out at some other points, just like sound waves in air. This mode is called the longitudinal mode. The S wave travels by undulating the ground in the direction perpendicular to the propagation, like light waves. This mode is called the transverse mode.

types of waves
Longitudinal and Transverse Waves

 

Locating the epicenter: How do scientists know where the center of the earthquake (the epicenter) is? Since the P wave travels faster than the S wave, it arrives at a certain place before the S wave. Places nearer the epicenter will experience the two in quick succession and far off places will experience a greater delay between the two waves. Using delay data from different earthquake monitoring centers, one can triangulate the position of the epicenter and even track how far below the earth’s surface it lies.

Measuring an earthquake: What does a “magnitude 7 earthquake on the Richter Scale” mean? The Richter scale magnitude measures how much the earth shakes. It does so by considering how much the needle of the seismograph (figure below) oscillates.

seismograph
Seismograph

The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale. This means that a 5 magnitude earthquake is 10 times as powerful (causes 10 times more shaking on the seismograph) than a 4 magnitude quake. A 6 magnitude one is 10 times as powerful as a 5 magnitude one and 100 times as powerful as a 4 magnitude one.

Earthquakes are often followed by smaller ones called aftershocks, (and sometimes, preceded by ‘foreshocks’).   This happens because the earth restores itself and takes some time to do so.

Prediction of earthquakes is impossible with the current technology and will likely remain so for a very long time. As far as data suggests, earthquakes are completely random and no occurrence pattern has ever been observed. As to whether animals can really sense’ earthquakes before they happen is a matter of speculation.