Spring has Sprung!

Spring is here and with it snow-melt, which is feeding the flooding season. Although some regions are still feeling the effects of parting shots from winter, spring is really taking charge of our weather.

Today, 23 March 2011, there are several states suffering major flooding or nearing conditions of major floods as snow-melt-fed rivers are cresting above flood stage or over-topping their banks. As of today, based on data from the  Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service of the National Weather Service, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesotta, Kentucky and Tenessee were already being impacted by major flooding,

This map shows the location of flood gauges around the country. The purples and reds show areas where major flooding has already occurred or where rivers in the area are nearing major flood stages.

which can be seen on the interactive map published daily by the National Weather Service shown here. To see and use the interactive map you can go to: http://water.weather.gov/ahps or you may also visit: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/RedFlagWarning/oh/ahps

Some of this major flooding is taking place along the Mississippi river and its tributaries. A couple of satellite pictures [shown below] taken over the past 30 days show the ‘before and after’ of some of these major flooding events:

View of a section of the Mississippi river before the genesis of current major flooding events.


Same section of the Mississippi river, taken just a few days ago, showing how the river has reached major flooding stage at several locations over-topping its banks.
While these flooding events are happening, spring has also brought extreme wind conditions, increased temperature and thunderstorms, which have in turn created fire weather conditions, especially in areas that have suffered drought .
Over the past few months we have seen the progressive transition from extreme winter weather events with several instances of paralyzing snow, and ice storms around the country, to the arrival of spring and with it major flooding events, potential for wild fires, which will soon lead to the arrival of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. All of these hazards highlight the vulnerability of the USA to extreme weather events, which often results in damage, injury and loss of life. This also highlights the need to be prepared and, above all, to practice hazard mitigation!

Major Earthquake Hits Japan

Map showing epicenter of major earthquake that hit offshore of Japan's Honshu island on 11 March 2011.

On 11 March 2011 at 12:46 a.m. EST (05:46:23 UTC) a major earthquake, preliminarily measured at a magnitude of 8.9 occurred near the Japan Trench in a subduction zone, where the Pacific plate thrust underneath the North America Plate where Japan is located. The earthquake hit at the rather shallow depth of 24,4 kilometers [15.3 miles] near the coastline of Sensai, generating a tsunami that began impacting more than 2,100 kilometers of the eastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, just a few minutes after the earthquake itself. Given the high magnitude of the earthquake the resulting tsunami was expected to impact Alaska and the west coast of Canada and the USA as well as Hawaii. Initial reports indicated 32 death from the earthquake and following tsunami, but this number is expected to climb as reports come in from a long stretch of densely populated coastal region to the north of Tokyo. 

Map showing all magnitude 7.0 or greater eartquakes that have hit the northern Honshu, Japan, region since 1990.

     The area where this earthquake hit had seen a series of quite strong, magnitude 6.0 to 7.2, foreshocks starting on 9 March, a day where one 7.2 earthquake and three 6.0 shocks took place near the epicenter of today’s major quake.This map shows the northern portion on Honshu island in Japan, to the north of Tokyo, and the Japan Trench identified by a purple line. Each color dot represents a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake in this region since 1900. The orange star pinpoints the 8.9 magnitude 11 March 2011 earthquake.

The northern portion of Japan’s Honshu island has quite a history of seismicity with several magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake having taken place since 1900. So the frequency of recurrence for major earthquakes is high as is the vulnerability of the region, in especial the eastern coastal region of Honshu.

The considerable risk of earthquake damage faced by northern Honshu is best illustrated by looking a seismic map of the region showing all earthquakes  magnitude 2.5 or greater, which have occurred since 1990, that is just over 20 years!
Map showings all 2.5 magnitude and greater that have hit the northern Honshu, Japan region since 1900.
The region where the 11 March 2011 earthquake hit is one of the most active sections of what is known as the Pacific “rim of fire”, which follows the boundary of the Pacific tectonic plate and a few other smaller plates, such as the Cocos, Nazca and the Philippines, as they interact with other plates such as the North America, South America, Australian and the Eurasian.
As these plates move past one another, or one under the other [subduction], friction makes the rock on each side of the boundary basically stick together until the force generated by accumulated energy is such that it overcomes friction and a rupture occurs. These boundaries between plates where these ruptures occur are know as seismic faults, or to put it simply: breaks in the crust of the Earth. In addition to generating most of the earthquakes on Earth, plate boundaries and seismic fault are also associated with the building of mountain ranges, volcanoes and islands.
Map showing the several tectonic plates comprising the crust of the Earth. The red area near Japan at the boundary between the North America and the Pacific plates is where the major 8.9 magnitude earthquake of 11 March 2011 occurred.
It is clear we will have to monitor the aftermath of this events, the earthquake and the tsunami, closely to assess how much damage and loss of life and injury takes place. We could expect the death toll to climb in Japan as preliminary damage assessments are completed by civil defense and emergency management teams, and physical or structural damage to coastal locations around the Pacific ocean to mount as the tremendous amount of energy released by the break in the seismic fault, which generated the tsunami, expands in subsequent concentric rings (as you get when you drop a pebble in a pond) and generates multiple impact waves over a period of minutes or hours on coatal regions around the Pacific.
This map illustrates the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire. Notice the point where the North American, Pacific, Philippines and Eurasian plates come together and how much major earthquake activity takes place there. That is the region where the 11 March 2011 earthquake hit.
As with other major impacts by a natural hazard, today’s event presents us with invaluable opportunities to learn. From how much prediction was available, to the roles of response and recovery efforts, and especially how effective the numerous mitigation measures Japan has implement over the years through building codes and standards and methods of construction. we will have unique opportunities to evaluate what worked or not, and why. No amount of simulations or experimental work can replicate what nature has done and the value of directly observing the impact and consequences…..this is the value of the empirical aproach to risk management.