Japan earthquake: The day the Earth’s rotation changed



As most of our planet knows by now, on 11 March, 2011, a massive 9.0 magnitude megahurst earthquake hit the Pacific coastline of Japan. The epicenter was 130 kilometers (81 mi) off the east coast of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku near Sendai, with the hypocenter at a depth of 32 km (19.9 mi).

It is near-impossible to imagine the magnitude of a natural force SO destructive that a country like Japan, which has one of the finest infrastructures and engineering in the world, had parts of it demolished like a stack of cards or matchsticks against this unbelievable force. The tragedy was further followed by a massive tsunami and now radiation leakage due to the damaged nuclear power stations on the shorelines of the affected areas.

Anyone with a sense of human empathy can understand the indescribable tragedy that families affected by the quake must be suffering from, due to the loss of their loved ones and earthly possessions, and how frightened those who were caught in the devastation and could not escape must have felt in their final moments of life. Videos of the tsunami showed how people were literally running on foot and in vehicles to escape their deaths – scenes so horrific in their reality – that one thinks this is something they only see in disaster movies – and it seemed surreal that fellow humans were meeting their deaths under such tragic and horrific and REAL circumstances. (It is also alarming to realize that there are people in the world who even in the aftermath of such a massive catastrophe could not look beyond their own narcissistic little bubbles. This includes the mind-numbing idiotic youtube video poster against Asians by a certain UCLA girl, or those on sites like facebook who showed remarkable apathy and navel-gazing and continued to post about what they had eaten and drunk the very next days of the quake. Yes – for some people it seems even a change in the planet’s rotation cannot take them away from their self-centredness. Even more unbelievable is a certain Christian evangelist pastor who claimed, with some glee, that the quake was caused because the Japanese did not follow Jesus. I do not know whether such people are cretins or have some normal-empathy-connection missing in their brains.)

Anyway – to further understand the magnitude of this event – it is astounding to realize that the earth’s axis literally shifted on that day! My father was a geophysicist, before turning to management, and due to his talks since I was a little girl I’d developed an eager interest in geology and tectonic plates….but an earthquake so strong that even the earth’s rotation changed is hard to conceive! My heart goes out to what the people near Sendai must be going through right now. We, so far away, can only watch. Many architects who are members of Architecture for Humanity (an organization I’ve joined as well) are hoping to go out there and help rebuild whenever that starts. Architecture for Humanity (as well as Architects without Borders) have undertaken several projects in post-earthquake Haiti too, but the Japanese infrastructure and wealth of course is at much better shape than Haiti’s – though the devastation has caused a mind-boggling level of damage.

Geophysicist Kenneth Hudnut, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey, told CNN that the quake had moved part of Japan’s land mass by nearly 2.5 meters (roughly 8 feet). It also caused the earth’s axis to shift by 17 cm (6.5 inches), which will affect its rotation and shorten the days in the northern hemisphere, albeit minimally. As well, geophysicist Richard Gross at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, reported that “By changing the distribution of the Earth’s mass, the Japanese earthquake should have caused the Earth to rotate a bit faster, shortening the length of the day by about 1.8 microseconds.” More refinements are possible as new information on the earthquake comes to light, he added.

This is not the first time that earthquakes have affected the earth’s rotation. The 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 2010 also sped up the planet’s rotation and shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds. The 9.1 Sumatra earthquake in 2004 shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds.

We only hope that though recovery is going to be an elephantine task, as time goes by, those affected in Japan are able to rebuild their lives in more ways than one.

For photographs of the quake-tsunami, a National Geographic collection here:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/pictures/110315-nuclear-reactor-japan-tsunami-earthquake-world-photos-meltdown/#/japan-earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-unforgettable-pictures-victim_33289_600x450.jpg

A Boston Globe photo collection here:  http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2011/03/massive_earthquake_hits_japan.html

2 thoughts on “Japan earthquake: The day the Earth’s rotation changed

  1. NEW COMMENT: This is not a reply to the previous comment.
    Physics Today Dec2011 revises Japan coastline rebound to the East from 2.5 to 5 meters. So you were more right than you realized in trying to help people comprehend something so much larger than themselves.
    //// How does one write to a blog author? My email is jerry dash VA at speakeasy dot net.

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