Forecasts: Japan's 2011 quake could be merely a prelude to the Big One
TOKYO -- Last year's earthquake-tsunami in Japan killed 19,000 people and derailed the global auto industry for months. But that disaster could be small potatoes compared to two quakes expected to hit Tokyo and Japan's industrial heartland -- someday.
New nightmare scenarios for those quakes predict tens of thousands dead, another devastating tsunami and hundreds of thousands of buildings destroyed. The only question is when.
At issue are two long-anticipated temblors, according to scientists' predictions based on known fault lines. One is centered on Tokyo, similar to the 1923 Kanto earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people. A second is in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast in western Japan, south of Osaka, Japan's second-biggest city.
A new government estimate, released last month, says up to 323,000 people could die in a massive Nankai disaster. That assumes a worst-case scenario of a 9.0-magnitude quake hitting during a winter night. The earlier death estimate, from a 2003 study, was for less than one-tenth of that: 24,700.
The government raised the death toll, partially to account for a bigger disaster zone, something deemed necessary after the experience of the 9.0 quake that struck March 11, 2011.
Separately, a Sept. 4 briefing by the University of Tokyo's Earthquake Research Institute laid out new, more worrisome, damage predictions for a Tokyo quake.
The institute's grim predictions for a 7.3-magnitude quake hammering Japan's biggest city:
10,000 dead, 148,000 injured.
304,000 buildings destroyed.
3.39 million evacuees.
Economic losses of $14.3 trillion.
Japanese scientists say there is a 70 percent chance of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hitting the Tokyo region in the next 30 years.
Last year's quake off the country's northeastern coast has stirred up fault lines elsewhere, making bigger Tokyo quakes more likely, Shinichi Sakai, a scientist at the Earthquake Research Institute, told reporters at the briefing.
"We have to be concerned about a series of big earthquakes that could follow," Sakai said. "There may be a higher likelihood of a quake striking Tokyo."
The region from Nagoya to Tokyo is the backbone of Japan's auto industry. It contains the world headquarters of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Subaru, plus the bulk of their manufacturing operations and those of their suppliers.
It is also the area likely to bear the brunt of the shaking.
The latest forecasts offered no specific predictions for Japan's auto industry. But the Tokyo metropolitan government is reinforcing buildings to withstand bigger temblors. And it is busy tackling other problems that came to light after last year's disaster: months of rolling blackouts amid energy shortages and a scarcity of food, gasoline and other goods.
Automakers are reinforcing plants and securing alternative supply chains. Suzuki Motor Corp. is even moving r&d centers to higher ground.
But only time will tell if those preparations are enough to weather the impending Big One.
"A magnitude-7 earthquake can happen anywhere in the Japanese archipelago," Sakai warns. "There are zero places in Japan where an earthquake can't happen."
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