I woke up to the dismaying news that a huge earthquake struck Japan at 2:46 Toyko time, with the epicenter 80 miles off the northeast coast. With a magnitude of either 8.8 or 8.9. that makes it the fifth biggest earthquake recorded this century. The good news—if you consider anything good about such an event—is that deaths will be considerably fewer than in previous quakes in Japan, perhaps numbering in the hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands (as in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923). Japan now has strict earthquake building codes and everyone knows what to do when the tremors hit.
Our thoughts are with the people of Japan, and with our readers who live there. Our official Japanese correspondent, Yokohamamama, is visiting California without her husband and three kids, and has posted updates on her website. She was up all night, frantic, waiting to find out if her family back home was all right: there was no internet or power in Yokohama, and cellphone service was out. I was speaking with her, however, at the moment when her husband managed to get through on Skype and assure her they were all okay. What a great relief! She still can’t return home, though, as all airline flights have been canceled. If you live in Japan and are reading this, let us know how things are there.
The New York Times already has posted a page of videos of the quake, which show the great power of such a thing and of its attendant tsunami, which at this moment is working its way across the Pacific at five hundred miles an hour.
As I said, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), this is the fifth largest earthquake recorded in the past century. Here are the top six with their magnitudes on the Richter scale and links to their descriptions.
Here’s a USGS map of the fifteen strongest earthquakes of the last century, all but one on striking on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur.
A side note: as Yokohamamama was sitting in her hotel lobby, where she had spent the night (internet reception was better there), desperate with worry, she was approached by a group of young Christians. They sat with her a while, trying to be helpful, and—when she still hadn’t learned the fate of her family—told her that “everything happens for a reason.” The reason, though, was not what they thought: it was simply the slipping of tectonic plates.