Tectonic plates carrying continents on their backs are in constant motion around the surface of our planet, slowly muddling their way hither and yon, climbing on each others’ backs like planetary turtles in a pond. Sometimes as they try to climb there is a rough patch out on the edge, and where one plate might have smoothly slid over another, it instead catches and hangs, temporarily ceasing its motion. But the rest of the colossal plate still wants to move, and it pushes harder and harder on that edge the longer its movement is stymied. Eventually that edge can no longer take the pressure and snaps off, allowing the rest of the plate to spring forward over the top of its neighbor the full distance of its previously hampered motion, inevitably causing earthquakes and tsunamis. The longer the plate has been held back, the further it jumps forward. Tectonic plates typically move between two and three and a half inches a year. The plate that caused the 9.0 Sendai Earthquake that hit Japan last Friday leapt somewhere between sixty six and one hundred and thirty feet.
It was ready to go.
The further from the edge of the plate, the less the movement. Honshu (the primary island of the group that makes Japan) was moved 2.4 meters. At the same time the tsunami was approaching, a two hundred and fifty mile stretch of Japanese coastline dropped two feet, magnifying the effect of the wave. The axis of the planet’s moved and our days got about two microseconds shorter. Chile, almost the furthest coastline from Japan on earth, got a seven foot tsunami wave from the event.
As of this writing, (and the figures rise minute by minute) the official number of confirmed dead is 4,314, with 2,282 injured, and 8,606 missing. (Expected casualty rates run into the multiple tens of thousands.) Aftershocks will likely continue for months, with over five hundred 4.5 or greater shocks already having hit since the initial quake. Although Japan was equipped with anti-tsunami seawalls as high as thirty nine feet over forty percent of its coastline, the wave just went right over them, tearing them down and washing them away.
Entire towns have been swept off the land they once occupied, boats, cars, trees, homes and office buildings brushed away by the force of the water. Six nuclear power stations have had significant problems, with a total of four explosions, two fires, and 230,000 people evacuated from the areas of potential contamination. While a Chernobyl-level event still seems unlikely, several Three Mile Islands are definitely in the cards. (Apparently the International Atomic Energy Agency warned the Japanese government that their safety procedures were dangerously out of date and that a strong earthquake would likely pose a “serious problem” for the stations.)
Limbaugh laughs at the shell-shocked survivors for trying to continue the motions of their everyday lives. Beck tells the world that this would never have happened if the Japanese had simply obeyed the Christian god’s commandments. YouTube is crazy with videos claiming that this is god’s vengeance for Pearl Harbor… and all of this despite the fact that Japan is there for us every time we have any kind of disaster, natural or manmade, with millions of dollars in cash, equipment, and manpower. (Personally I believe it’s the universe balancing the scales for the Japanese blurring out so much of their porn, but that’s just between you and me.)
There are no grand lessons to be learned here, no larger meanings to be absorbed. (Other than perhaps coastal property being seriously overpriced considering its potential for killing you.) There was a thing in the ocean, and it popped. A bunch of people were in the way when it happened. For us it is sad and those people deserve our compassion and support, and we should focus on that. God didn’t do it, and Gaia isn’t out for revenge.
Shit just… happens.