Simon Winchester: The Scariest Earthquake Is Yet to ComeRoundup: Historians' Take
Mr. Winchester is the author of several books on natural disasters including Krakatoa and the San Francisco earthquake.
We all now know, and have for 50 years, that geography is the ultimate reason behind the disaster. Japan is at the junction of a web of tectonic-plate boundaries that make it more peculiarly vulnerable to ground-shaking episodes than almost anywhere else—and it is a measure of Japanese engineering ingenuity, of social cohesion, of the ready acceptance of authority and the imposition of necessary discipline that allows so many to survive these all-too-frequent displays of tectonic power.
But geography is not the only factor in this particular and acutely dreadful event. Topography played an especially tragic role in the story, too—for it is an axiom known to all those who dwell by high-tsunami-risk coastlines that when the sea sucks back, you run: you run inland and, if at all possible, you run uphill. But in this corner of northeast Japan, with its wide plains of rice meadows and ideal factory sites and conveniently flat airport locations, there may well be a great deal of inland—but there is almost no uphill.
Such mountains as exist are far away, blue and distant in the west. All here is coastal plain. And so the reality is this: if a monstrous wave is chasing you inland at the speed of a jetliner, and if the flat topography all around denies you any chance of sprinting to a hilltop to try to escape its wrath, then you can make no mistake—it will catch you, it will drown you, and its forces will pulverize you out of all recognition as a thing of utter insignificance, which of course, to a tsunami, all men and women and their creations necessarily must be.
Even more worrisome than geography and topography, though, is geological history. For this event cannot be viewed in isolation. There was a horrifically destructive Pacific earthquake in New Zealand on Feb. 22, and an even more violent magnitude-8.8 event in Chile almost exactly a year before. All three phenomena involved more or less the same family of circum-Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries—and though there is still no hard scientific evidence to explain why, there is little doubt now that earthquakes do tend to occur in clusters: a significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often—not invariably, but often enough to be noticeable—followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side....
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