Monday, July 4, 2011

A Marker to Remember

Villagers in the Alps must not fear tsunamis like the inhabitants of the east coast of Japan. But they must confront snow avalanches which may be highly destructive to home and life as well.

Unlike tsunamis in Japan, avalanches in the Alps recur with great regularity every year. Indeed, some avalanches fall with seemingly clockwork-like precision. Hamlets huddled on the slopes of deep, narrow valleys between towering mountains are particularly at risk. Over the centuries, the villagers maintained logs in which they meticulously recorded the time and date a particular avalanche descended, the precise area affected, the depth of the snow and its composition.

Topographic map of the surroundings of the village of Obergoms, Vs, Switzerland, showing the extent of avalanches (hatched) recorded in February, 1951, plus the paths of avalanches (arrows) noted between 1700 and 1999 (courtesy  
With the help of this knowledge, the villagers grew protective forests on the slopes above and erected barriers to hold back the snow masses on summits and ridges. They were able to designate uninhabitable zones that were indefensible. This tradition of prudence rooted in generation-old experience represents a powerful example telling us that our survival depends in no small way on our awareness of history and our willingness to learn from it.

Report of Japanese Government to the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, Fig. III-1-17.
Similarly, based on age-old experience with tsunamis, villagers in the Aneyoshi neighborhood of the modern-day city and fishing port of Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, on the northeast coast of Japan aptly erected a roadside marker, warning future generations that if they built their homes downhills from this point, their lives would be in peril (for review see Hideo Takagi's remarkable opinion piece with the title "Preserving the Remains in Areas Struck by the Tsunami-Applying the Aftermath of the Tragedy to Disaster Education and Enlightenment" posted on the Daily Yomiuri online). The humble stone monument can be seen in the left photograph above. The debris besides the road visible in the right photograph documents that the Tohoku-Oki Earthquake and Tsunami on Mar. 11, 2011, starkly proved the stone's inscription true (photograph below).

The marker's warning (photo by Dr. Masayuki Oishi).
The catastrophe exacted the greatest loss of lives in Japan's post-war history. Moreover, quake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station on the shores of the Pacific Ocean outside Fukushima City, precipitating the third nuclear reactor accident with fuel melt-downs in the history of the commercial use of nuclear power only rivaled by Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. Four reactors suffered destructive explosions, radioactively contaminating air, land, and sea with yet unfathomable consequences. Mitigation is ongoing. The health of hundreds of thousands of people is at stake.

Radiation dose meter at Fukushima Medical University 35 miles from the stricken nuclear power station. The readings are continuously updated. In the week after the quake, dosemeter readings in Fukushima City spiked above 20 μSv/h. At this dose, we are exposed to an effective absorbed dose of 0.175 Sv in a year which corresponds to 17.5 rem; a dose that nuclear industry professionals perhaps accumulate over their entire career.

Perhaps, one day monuments similar to that on the road near Miyako will be erected in Fukushima at a safe distance from the ruins of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, reminding future generations on their quest for ever more energy not to proceed beyond this point, because the price exacted is too high.

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