Hokkaido Earthquake Adds to Japan’s Summer of Natural Disasters
With its epicenter just due east of Tomakomai City, roughly 38 miles (60 kilometers) south of prefectural capital Sapporo City, a forceful 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck Japan’s Hokkaido island in the early hours of Thursday, Sept. 6, killing at least three dozen. Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) reported that the earthquake struck the island at a depth of 25 miles (40 kilometers), with the entire island reporting shaking intensity of at least four (and towns near the epicenter reporting up to six-upper) on the JMA’s seven-step intensity scale.
Japan’s location at the juncture of four major tectonic plates (and several smaller plates) makes it subject to regular low-level earthquakes and sporadic major earthquakes, which may also result in tsunamis — as was the case on Mar. 11, 2011, when a magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck northeastern Japan, triggered a massive tsunami, and killed nearly 16,000 while causing the worst nuclear disaster in recent world history. Other previous notable earthquakes include the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck the Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area in central Japan, killing more than 6,400; and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated the Tokyo area and killed around 145,000 in its immediate aftermath.
The Sept. 6 earthquake, the strongest that rocked Hokkaido island since 1996, shuttered transportation links across the island, including crucial regional transport hub New Chitose Airport; damaged Tomato-Atsuma power plant, which supplies nearly half of the island’s power; and temporarily cut external power, needed for cooling spent fuel, to Tomari Nuclear Power Plant in the island’s west. The town of Atsuma, situated a mere four miles (6.5 kilometers) from the epicenter, was inundated by a destructive landslide in the quake’s immediate wake that killed over three dozen residents and forced the evacuation of over 1,900 from their homes.
The Japanese government mobilized the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to assist local governments in combing through rubble for survivors and providing emergency supplies for hard-hit areas, with nearly 6,400 people in Sapporo alone seeking residence in temporary evacuation shelters on the night of Sept. 6. Power across the island was partially restored by the following day, although businesses and government officials warned that it would take at least a full week to fully restore power to the entire island as power companies took stock of damage to equipment and transmission lines. High-speed bullet train service was restored on Friday, Sept. 7, while New Chitose Airport restarted operations on Saturday, Sept. 8.
By Sunday, Sept. 9, the death toll had reached 42, with most casualties reported from landslide-devastated Atsuma. Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe visited hard-hit Kiyota Ward in eastern Sapporo the same day and met with displaced residents in temporary evacuation camps while Hokkaido’s prefectural government reported that around 2,600 people were residing in temporary shelters, a number significantly lower than the initial peak of 16,600.
This past summer of 2018 has been one of the most brutal in terms of natural disasters for the Japanese archipelago: the Osaka Earthquake in June, which killed five and injured over 400; the record-breaking rainfall in early July, which killed 225 in severe flooding and landslides across central and western Japan; an extreme heat wave in July through August, killing 133; Typhoon Jebi, which made landfall on Sept. 4, battering central Japan and disabling Kansai International Airport; and now this earthquake.
While the synergy of pliable infrastructure, high-tech disaster warning mechanisms and promptness of the authorities have sustained Japan’s resilience, experts warn that “climate change [is] making disasters worse,” with prior personal experience no longer a “reliable guide.” As over 40,000 emergency personnel continue their post-earthquake cleanup missions in Hokkaido, all eyes are now back on Tokyo to see how the Japanese government will prepare for the next disaster given that “there is really no region that’s perfectly safe in Japan” and climate change may be worsening the effects of future calamities.