The horrific loss of life in a single event in Japan gives serious pause for thought about the fragility of human life on planet Earth. The  power of  such an immeasurable and uncontrollable volume of water on the move is both terrifying and awe-inspiring.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese artist, painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Hokusai is best-known as the author of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1831) which includes the internationally known print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. It is this image – reminding one of the line by W. B. Yeats, “A terrible beauty is born” – that many people recall when a tsunami occurs. Hokusai makes the viewer thrill to what is a lethal force of nature.

The term tsunami comes from two Japanese characters meaning “harbour” and “wave”. It is a series of waves caused by the displacement of a large body of water, usually an ocean, though it can occur in large lakes. As we know from the events of 2004 in the Indian Ocean and of last week in Japan, the immense volumes of water and the high energy involved can devastate coastal regions.

Tsunamis must have been regular occurrences in the history of the planet. It is known that an exploding volcano in Sicily 8,000 years ago caused an avalanche that crashed into the sea triggering a devastating tsunami that spread across the entire Mediterranean basin. There are no historical records of the event – only geological records – but scientists say the tsunami was taller than a 10-story building.

  • In 1755, after a colossal earthquake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, and rocked much of Europe, a tsunami ensued, as did great fires. Altogether, the event killed more than 60,000 people.
  • In 1883 eruptions from the Krakatoa volcano fuelled a tsunami that drowned 36,000 people in the Indonesian Islands of western Java and southern Sumatra. The strength of the waves pushed coral blocks weighing 600 tons on to the shore.
  • In 1896 waves as high as 100 feet (30 meters), spawned by an earthquake, swept the east coast of Japan. Some 27,000 people died.
  • In 1958 in Lituya Bay, Alaska, a tsunami regarded as the largest recorded in modern times, was caused by a landslide triggered by an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. Waves reached an unbelievable height of 1,720 feet (576 meters) in the bay, but because the area is relatively isolated and in a unique geological setting the tsunami did not cause much damage. It sank a single boat, killing two fishermen.
  • In 1960 the largest recorded earthquake, magnitude 8.6 in Chile, created a tsunami that hit the Chilean coast within 15 minutes. The surge, up to 75 feet (25 meters) high, killed an estimated 1,500 people in Chile and Hawaii.
  • In 1976 a tsunami on the heels of an earthquake in the southwest Philippines killed 8,000.
  • In 1998 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake generated a tsunami in Papua New Guinea that killed 2,200.

It is curious that people seem so unfazed by living with the threat of a natural disaster in the making. Why are the residents of San Francisco or Palm Springs – on the edge of the San Andreas Fault – so complacent? A study carried out in 2006 has demonstrated that the area has been stressed to a level sufficient for the next “big one” – an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater. It is likely to create a devastating tsunami.

And why did the Japanese build three nuclear reactors next to the sea in a region known for tsunamis? There are mountains behind Sendai which would have made for a more secure location. It’s an obvious question. Less obvious is how a nation comes to terms with the ruination visited on so many people, the devastation, and the tragedy of so many orphaned and dead children.


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