An Eerie Reading Coincidence

2011 April 20

I’ve been reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson lately and I came across this passage:

The most common types of earthquakes are those where two plates meet, as in California along the San Andreas Fault. As the plates push against each other, pressures build up until one or the other gives way. In general, the longer the interval between quakes, the greater the pent-up pressure and thus the greater the scope for a really big jolt. This is a particular worry for Tokyo, which Bill McGuire, a hazards specialist at University College London, describes as “the city waiting to die” (not a motto you will find on many tourism leaflets). Tokyo stands on the boundary of three tectonic plates in a country already well known for its seismic instability. In 1995, as you will remember, the city of Kobe, three hundred miles to the west, was struck by a magnitude 7.2 quake, which killed 6,394 people. The damage was estimated at $99 billion. But that was as nothing—well, as comparatively little—compared with what may await Tokyo.

Tokyo has already suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern times. On September 1, 1923, just before noon, the city was hit by what is known as the Great Kanto quake—an event more than ten times more powerful than Kobe’s earthquake. Two hundred thousand people were killed. Since that time, Tokyo has been eerily quiet, so the strain beneath the surface has been building for eighty years. Eventually it is bound to snap. In 1923, Tokyo had a population of about three million. Today it is approaching thirty million. Nobody cares to guess how many people might die, but the potential economic cost has been put as high as $7 trillion.

The recent Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami may have mostly spared Tokyo, but damn. I wonder if it counts as getting rid of that strain beneath the surface. If it does, I guess possibly $309 billion in damage and anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 deaths is preferable to $7 trillion and hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The book is wonderful, by the way, even if it’s more of a relatively short science book (considering the breadth of topics covered) which explains our knowledge about the universe and how we came to realize such things, as opposed to a massive history tome like Europe: A History. Bryson is a very entertaining author who obviously did an insanely amount of research to put together the book.

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