How Engineering saved millions of lives in Japan

About the disaster

Sometimes disaster strikes without much warning. Sometimes with none; the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 170 years, and caused a massive tsunami to hit much of the Japanese coast. Some areas had as little as 15 minutes warning. Look at some of the photos on this article from The Atlantic.

News stations in America are hyping up the small threat of tsunamis hitting the American/Canadian west coast, as well as the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. And they obviously make big note of the huge disaster in Japan. But the spin on regular news is always the danger, the crisis, the death, the horrible horrible ness of it all.

What makes it interesting

Here’s an interesting insight in to it all: This earthquake is currently considered an 8.9-9.1 on the Richter scale. An earthquake only slightly larger (9.1) hit Indonesia and the Philippines in 2004, and there were something like 230,000 deaths caused by the quake and concurrent tsunamis.

Image of Tokyo aftermath from the 2011 Sendai earthquake

Some real damage, but everything is still standing. Everyone is still standing

So far, deaths caused by this quake number at 400, with 700 missing. The population density of Japan is much higher than Indonesia, so how can that many people be kept safe?

How can the casualties be so low?

It’s pretty simple: Japan has some beastly civil engineers. Look at those pictures from the Atlantic article; lots of fires, lots of cars swept away, lots of mud, lots of dirt—none of the big buildings are collapsed, though. That means everyone inside their office at work only had to watch out for things falling off their desk. They didn’t have to worry about buildings falling off their foundation. And Japan did that on purpose.

Civil engineers in Japan have been hard at work making ways to prevent building collapse in the event of a massive earthquake such as this. In fact, Japan is the proud owner of at least 37 shake tables, as well as the world’s most famous one, the E-defense shake table in Miki, Japan. These are used to test construction patterns and designs to the point of failure, to find which methods are the most rugged.

Japan is also known for having a delightfully high number of mass dampeners in high-rise buildings, which reduce the shock of an earthquake’s shaking.

Our hearts go out to the people affected by this disaster. And it’s always a tragedy when things like this happen. But let’s be thankful we have engineers who dedicate their lives to saving lives by doing it right.

Edit: The death toll is unofficially around 10,000 now. This is a grave tragedy but, again, not nearly as horrific as it would have been without the wonderful work of Japan’s engineers.

Related Links

  • Here’s a video of the tsunami hitting Sendai—the first place to get hit after the earthquake. A lot of the smaller buildings go down, but it’s really amazing that so few people were hurt.
  • Edit: Another video. This one maps the epicenters of the several earthquakes before and after the big one in Japan.
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3 thoughts on “How Engineering saved millions of lives in Japan

  1. The Japanese building codes are very strict, for a good reason. Haiti, on the other hand, had a 7.0 earthquake and pretty much every building turned to dust. I agree with you that the Japanese engineers are top notch, but you should also consider giving props to the policy makers, without whom the buildings wouldn’t be built to these high standards.

    • This is a really good point. I was approaching this from an engineering standpoint, so I didn’t really talk about the policy makers–but their work pushing legislation to make things happen definitely played a big role! Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: Japan makes cyborg suit to fight radiation in Fukushima. | Get Real

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