We’ve all been trying to keep tabs on the current situation in Japan. Bwog wants to help you make sense of the headlines, and who better to ask than our own faculty? We have one of the oldest and most renowned East Asian studies departments in the country, and a slew of scientists cited across the national media, all with interesting insight into what’s happening across the Pacific. The threat of radiation has been by far the most discussed topic, followed by the science behind earthquakes and cultural observations.

Health Risks and Disaster Preparedness

David Brenner, Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University

  • “Chernobyl was the equivalent of 1 million Three Mile Islands. [Japan] certainly looks much more like a Three Mile Island. There are a lot of similarities between this and Three Mile Island. In both cases they were able to shut the reactor down almost immediately.” (The Daily Beast)
  • At Three Mile, “There is no evidence that anybody at all got sick, even decades later. The medical consequences depend entirely on how much radioactive material is released. The sorts of numbers I’m seeing are not the sort that could be linked with radiological symptoms.” (NYT)
  • Any risk to the US is “extremely unlikely. … The distance is simply so large the cloud will be so dispersed by the time it reaches the U.S.” (CBS) Plus, You don’t ingest radioactive material by inhaling it. “The way to prevent it is just to stop people from drinking the milk [and] I wouldn’t be eating an apple from a tree close to the plant.” (NYT)
  • On the nuclear workers still at the plant: “Their situation is not great. It’s pretty clear that they will be getting very high doses of radiation. There’s certainly the potential for lethal doses of radiation. They know it, and I think you have to call these people heroes.” (CNN)

Irwin Redlener, Director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

  • Americans are “extraordinarily underprepared for disasters,” and have proven we have no idea how to handle a similar situation. “Motivating citizen efforts to prepare for any kind of disaster, from earthquakes and hurricanes to pandemics and terrorism, has been essentially unsuccessful over the past decade.” (The Daily Beast)
  • We can, and should learn a lot from careful observation: “Japan’s economy and level of development are in many respects very similar to that of the U.S.  So we need to pay careful attention to what went wrong – and what’s gone right – before, during and after this complex disaster.” (CNN)


James Gaherty, associate researcher professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

  • The earthquakes are fairly difficult to contextualize: “These kinds of events are very well-understood in Japan. The fact that they have large events on the order of magnitude 8 is something they’ve had many times over their history. This one is a little bit unusual in that we’re not necessarily expecting something quite as large as this. These mega-quakes, more like a magnitude 9, are very rare, even over geologic history looking back. We have a hard time finding evidence of them. We’ve observed now three, really, in the last six years, since Sumatra. So we seem to be in a period of very active occurrence of these. But how the really big quakes develop is something that we’re really trying to understand.” (CBS)
  • “There are going to continue to be large aftershocks of this earthquake,” Gaherty said. “We would expect, for typically a rule of thumb, for the largest aftershock after a big earthquake like this, it’s about one magnitude unit smaller. A magnitude 8 earthquake can still cause a significant tsunami. Certainly not of the devastating level of this one. But still something to keep an eye on.” (CBS)
  • There is a risk of an earthquake in the US: “The Pacific Northwest—what we call the Cascadia Subduction Zone—has the same kind of characteristics as the fault beneath Japan has. We’re worried about a large subduction zone similar to Japan. … California has significant risk, the San Andreas fault, a fault more like in New Zealand [but in] California, we’re not going to get a big tsunami producing event—Pacific Northwest we might.” (CBS)

Leonardo Seeber, seismologist and research professor at Lamont-Doherty, wrote an op-ed for CNN. At the time of the earthquake, he was actually in Tokyo for a conference on the 2004 Sumatran earthquake! Here’s a highlight from the op-ed:

  • We should not underestimate Japan’s sophisticated understanding of the situation. “Like Californians, the Japanese have been serious about earthquakes and it was now paying off. The statistics are clear. Even though the attention is riveted on the bad news of the tsunami devastating coastal towns, some of what is happening is very uplifting. People are not being crushed under buildings, despite a huge earthquake at striking distance from a megalopolis of 30 million. Considering the size of the phenomenon and of the city affected, Tokyo came through largely unscathed.” (CNN)

John Armbruster, seismologist at Lamont-Doherty, thinks that New Jersey is unlikely to be affected, and Meredith Nettles, also at Lamont, suggests that building nuclear plants on fault lines is not a great idea.


Gregory Pflugfelder, director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University

  • Interpreting the response to the quake: “Looting simply does not take place in Japan. I’m not even sure if there’s a word for it that is as clear in its implications as when we hear ‘looting.’ … Such social order and discipline are so enforced in ordinary times that I think it’s very easy for Japanese to kind of continue in the manner that they’re accustomed to, even under an emergency.” (CNN)
  • “[In the US] you do everything you can to protect your own interests with the understanding that, in a rather free-market way, everybody else is going to do the same. And that order will come out of this sort of invisible hand. And Japanese don’t function that way. Order is seen as coming from the group and from the community as a sort of evening out of various individual needs.” (CNN)

Chris Beam, CC’06 and writer for Slate, has an interesting article on how this cultural attitude toward order is reinforced by the structural factors in Japanese society.

Map via Wikimedia