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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pacific Perils

An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 hit Yingjiang of southwest China's Yunnan Province on March 10, 2011. This event was quickly overtaken in the news by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in northern Japan and the ensuing tsunami and problems at a number of nuclear power electric generating stations. My heart goes out to all those who have been harmed by these quakes and their after-effects. Effects so great that they caused related destruction and death thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in Crescent City and Santa Cruz, California.

It is hard to understand how big a 9.0 quake is. Living in California we worry about the "big one" happening. Not a constant worry, just something in the back of one's mind.  And the Richter Scale, which measures the size of earthquakes is logarithmic. Basically, that means that each succeeding whole number on the scale represents a shaking 10 times greater than the prior number.  So, a 6.0 is 10 time stronger than a 5.0.  A 7.0 is 10 times stronger than a 6.0 and 100 times stronger than a 5.0.  Even though I experienced the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994, I find it impossible to imagine something more than 100 times stronger. 

I also cannot imagine being in the vicinity of a tsunami and surviving. We first heard of the quake and tsunami in Japan early in the morning. The television news warned that waves generated by the tsunami would reach the California coastline around 8:00 a.m. I stood on our terrace and looked at the ocean. As long as I could see the usual patch of sand past the palm trees, I felt OK. Were the waives higher than normal or was it just my imagination? Are we high enough above sea level or does our closeness to the ocean make that issue irrelevant? I stood marveling at the beauty and deadliness of the sea for about a half hour.

Only later that weekend did I return to the television news casts and became inundated with news about the problems at the nuclear power plants in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami. I have followed the news reportage on the power plants with interest and disappointment:  

 -- With interest because my high school senior science project was about nuclear power plants. And, my class and I visited a plant under construction in northern Illinois. I vividly remember the massive size of the containment buildings and cooling structures compared to the "small" size of the reactor core. With interest also since we now live north of "SONGS" and have been given potassium iodide tablets for use in case of a radiation leak. I previously wrote about those tablets here. My doctor says that they are probably still good after their official expiration date since I've kept them refrigerated.

-- With disappointment since it is very clear that most news reporters and commentators know little about math and science and most of their pronouncements sound more hysterical then factual. While one does not wish to under estimate any danger, over estimating it is not useful either.

For more insight I called a nuclear engineering scientist I know:  Dr. Jasmina Vujic at UC-Berkeley.  She has been answering reporters' questions and providing assistance to the nuclear engineers in Japan; she appears in in the video here and is also quoted here.  She also concurs with my assessment of news reporters, though in much stronger terms.  Overall, the engineering situation seems tough but more will only become known in the future.  It is too early to draw firm conclusions regarding the extent and full nature of the problems at the power plants or to determine optimal solutions.

Meanwhile, many people around the world are involved in humanitarian efforts to help the victims.  Including the US Navy. I often see naval vessels on their way in and out of San Diego. Below is a photo I took with a zoom lens at the end of February and then enhanced the colors using iPhoto. If you double click on the image to enlarge it, you will see a helicopter coming in for a landing at the back of the ship.

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