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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Wisdom of the Ancients

I recall watching an excellent PBS news piece done about 8 months after the Great Japan Tsunami of 2011 (link here) that outlines some excellent ways researchers in Japan and the US are creating to save lives in Tsunami zones. 

The video begins by looking at systems of breakwaters and barriers—some static and some activated in the event of a tsunami to reduce the impact (e.g., lower the force and depth) of the wave.  The cost of such systems, however, is significant and it’s unrealistic to think such technology could be employed nationwide.  That said, where such structures existed in 2011, damage was reduced.

In some coastal towns in Japan, leaders are relying on retrofitted building or specially designed new construction (buildings and towers) that will provide “vertical escape” for residents to rise above the danger of inundation.  The structures must, of course, withstand both an earthquake and the power of the resulting tsunami, if generated.  An example used earlier in an entry on this page made note of cities in the US that are creating public buildings that are above the anticipated level of tsunami flooding. 

Obviously, anything that can be done to provide a safe place during a tsunami event is worth the investment.  In the case of the new town hall, it’s a simple matter of making a deliberate design decision to build a more robust, raised structure when you’re already planning (and paying for) a particular project; and, therefore, the cost impact would be marginal.  What this option does not do, however, is protect homes and commercial structures in the impact area.  Thus, the damage could still be costly to repair.


The most important part of this video came toward the end, when the commentator was standing on higher ground above the point where the flooded town once stood.  He noted stones along the road that had been placed centuries before by the ancestors of many who live in that region of the country.  The stones warn future generations not to build their houses any lower than the elevation of the stones.  As history has borne out, those who listened to the advice, still have their lives and villages intact; while the homes and many of the lives of those that did not have been destroyed.  

Shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, a New York Times article featured a photo and description of these stones.  The article goes on to say:

Residents of the tiny village of Aneyoshi, Japan, say the warning from their ancestors "kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami last month that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone....

"Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation. But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck....

"The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a common sight along Japan’s northeastern shore, which bore the brunt of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left almost 29,000 people dead or missing.  While some are so old that the characters are worn away, most were erected about a century ago after two deadly tsunamis here, including one in 1896 that killed 22,000 people. Many carry simple warnings to drop everything and seek higher ground after a strong earthquake. Others provide grim reminders of the waves’ destructive force by listing past death tolls or marking mass graves....

"Local scholars said only a handful of villages like Aneyoshi heeded these old warnings by keeping their houses safely on high ground. More commonly, the stones and other warnings were disregarded as coastal towns grew in the boom years after World War II. Even communities that had moved to high ground eventually relocated to the seaside to be nearer their boats and nets....

"Mr. Yamashita, 87, who survived the recent tsunami by clinging to a curtain after waters flooded the hospital where he was bedridden, said Japan had neglected to teach its tsunami lore in schools. He said the nation had put too much store instead in new tsunami walls and other modern concrete barriers, which the waves easily overwhelmed last month. Still, he and other local experts said that the stones and other old teachings did contribute to the overall awareness of tsunamis, as seen in the annual evacuation drills that many credit with keeping the death toll from rising even higher last month....

"For most Japanese today, the stones appear relics of a bygone era, whose language can often seem impenetrably archaic. However, some experts say the stones have inspired them to create new monuments that can serve as tsunami warnings, but are more suited to a visual era of Internet and television.  One idea, put forth by a group of researchers, calls for preserving some of the buildings ruined by the recent tsunami to serve as permanent reminders of the waves’ destructive power, much as the skeletal Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima warns against nuclear war...."

One woman who barely survived the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 is quoted in the video as saying that she will not return to rebuild her home.  The commentator’s comments are quite telling:

“For many here, no amount of engineering will be enough to wall off the sadness and the fear.”

The lesson here is that open-minded locational decisions will save far more lives than engineering solutions alone.  Like the ancients in Japan suggested, perhaps long-term plans should include relocation and resettlement, as well as rebuilding in place.   

The same can be said for flood zones and places susceptible to other natural disasters where living and working outside the scope of danger is cheaper and more effective than simply retrofitting what you have in the hope that you can escape quickly or withstand the inevitable.

The Times article concluded with the following:

"The village’s mostly older residents said they regretted not making more of an effort to teach younger residents such tsunami-survival basics as always to seek higher ground.  'We are proud of following our ancestors,' Isamu Aneishi, 69, said, 'but our tsunami stone can’t save us from everything.'"

(Photo is from linked NY Times article.)

Postscript:  Other Warnings from the Ancients

The new field of geographic thought surrounding the use of ancient tales and writings to help warn of impending dangers is called Geomythology. An article (HERE) in The Guardian, makes note of a modern reprise of the ancient Japanese tsunami stones.  It says

"On the banks of Siletz Bay in Lincoln City, Oregon, officials dedicated a memorial last week to one of America's worst calamities: a huge earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of Native Americans 300 years ago.  But the memorial's main job is not to commemorate the disaster, which has only just come to light, but to warn local people that similar devastation could strike at any time. The area sits over massive fault lines whose dangers have been highlighted by a startling new scientific discipline that combines Earth science studies and analysis of ancient legends. This is geomythology, and it is transforming our knowledge of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis..."

The article continues, citing examples from Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Sadly, like the Japanese, people don't always listen to the warnings of the ancients.  The predecessors to the Romans were aware that long periods of earthquake activity preceded volcanic activity, yet the residents of Roman Pompeii failed to heed those warnings.  (See BBC article here.)  Fortunately, the writings of Pliny the Elder have helped modern scientists predict volcanic activity.  Hopefully, we can learn the lessons they didn't.