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Top>Opinion>Natural Disasters and the Future of Mankind


Shunji Ouchi

Shunji Oouchi [Profile]

Natural Disasters and the Future of Mankind

Shunji Ouchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: geosciences, geomorphology

The Great East Japan Earthquake

A massive earthquake and huge tsunami struck the areas along the Pacific coast of Eastern Japan on March 11th, 2001. It was a major catastrophe where the damage spread as wide as from Aomori Prefecture to Chiba Prefecture and left twenty thousand or so dead or missing. It was a huge 9.0-magnitude trench-type earthquake with an epicenter near the Japan Trench off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, which is thought to have caused the huge tsunami when seabed faults in an extent of five hundred kilometers were activated. The huge tsunami not only brought catastrophic damage to many towns and villages along the coast, but it destroyed all of the power sources for cooling down the cores at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and caused serious situations from hydrogen explosions and core meltdowns in the nuclear reactors to large releases of radiological materials. The situation still shows no signs of ending. Japan, which is located in the area of active plate boundaries where four plates interact with each other, is frequently struck by earthquakes and other natural disasters, and this particular area is known to have been hit a number of times in the past by tsunamis caused by earthquakes. Therefore, people were not unprepared for tsunamis. In fact, massive coastal levees and breakwaters unlike any other in the world have been constructed in various locations on the Sanriku Coast. It has been pointed out, however, that they were not only almost useless against the tsunami on March 11th, but that they might have even been the cause of excess human suffering as their presence created a sense of security. The limit to how far nature's wrath could be obstructed with man-made objects was displayed astoundingly. Perhaps the groundless insistence that they were fully prepared against natural disasters while placing too much focus on promoting advances in nuclear power generation in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was what led to the irrevocable accident. It can be called a man-made disaster, but it feels like we have been presented with a problem that runs deep, which involves the relationship between nature and humans including the question of whether or not we can actually control nuclear power.

Natural Phenomena and Disasters

Needless to say, what caused this major catastrophe known as the Great East Japan Earthquake were natural phenomena-an earthquake and tsunami. To the earth, they may be natural phenomena that are no more than just small movements on its surface, but they are impossible for humans to stop, and the prevention of such natural disasters (or minimizing the damages caused by them) is nothing but a human problem. This is self-evident when considering that these natural phenomena would just be natural phenomena and not disasters if there were no humans. Humans are one of the groups of living organisms that inhabit the surface of the earth-or in other words, the border between the solid earth and the lower atmosphere-and are exposed to fluctuations on the surface of the earth, motion in the atmosphere, and their changes. It can be said that there is always the danger of natural phenomena becoming natural disasters. This danger is especially high in a country like Japan, which is on active plate boundaries and frequently experiences events such as typhoons. We have seen major earthquakes like the previous one in the past, and we can expect to see more in the future. As long as there is a limit to how far disasters can be prevented with man-made objects, more emphasis must be placed on detecting and avoiding them in order to minimize the damages from natural disasters. A further understanding of natural phenomena and nature itself must especially be the priority. However, there is still a lot we do not know about nature. The cause of earthquakes is now widely explained as the shifting of plates, but it was not too long ago that the theory of plate tectonics became generally accepted. The theory of plate tectonics was new and virtually unknown just forty years ago and there were many researchers who opposed it. There is still a lot more to learn about the earth and nature in order to deepen our understanding on this subject, and further efforts by researchers as well as the backing of society are necessary. It is also important to spread this understanding to the general public, and that is where education plays a major role.

Nature, Humans, and Our Future

Humans have been struggling against nature's wrath and striving for survival and prosperity since ancient times. In modern times, mankind has won many battles due to tremendous developments in science and technology, and we have attained unprecedented prosperity. And now we have separated ourselves from nature and expanded a safe, comfortable, and clean "man-made world." As long as humans are a part of nature, however, continued victories against nature will lead straight to our destruction. Having come this far but being shown the limit to how far we can actually obstruct natural phenomena with man-made objects is like a warning to us. The world population is expected to exceed seven billion this year and humans are likely to continue pursuing even more comfortable lifestyles. Energy, food, and other resources will naturally be consumed further as the limits of circulation will be exceeded. We can see the limit the earth tolerates right there. The time has come for us to reexamine humans, which cannot exist anywhere but on the earth and our societies from their very foundations. Fighting among humans and plunging into large-scale wars as we approach our limits must be avoided at all costs.

Right now, all attention must be focused on assistance for the afflicted areas and victims so that they can recover as soon as possible. However, the destructive force of the great tsunami has shown us humans what our limits are, and the controlling of nuclear power-which was once believed to be the source of energy that would pave the way for our future-has proven difficult. Therefore, I cannot help but to think that we must be prepared to face a major issue that affects the future of the entire human race, a glimpse of which is seen just beyond the recovery.

Shunji Ouchi
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: geosciences, geomorphology
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1949. Graduated from the Faculty of Science, Tokyo Metropolitan University in 1972. Completed the Master's Course at the Graduate School of Science, Tokyo Metropolitan University in 1974. Completed the Doctor's Course (Earth Resources) at Colorado State University in 1983. Ph.D. (Colorado State University).
Teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Mitaka High School. Assumed current post in 2008 after serving as Full-Time Instructor, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor at Chuo University.
Specializes in geomorphology. Has conducted research centering on crustal movements and river morphology, and is currently advancing experimental research on geomorphic evolution. Recent research papers include "Development of experimental landforms by rainfall erosion and uplift. The Journal of the Geological Society of Japan 117, 163-171 (2011)", and "Effects of uplift on the development of experimental erosion landform generated by artificial rainfall. Geomorphology, 127, 88-98 (2011)."