When the World Broke: Looking back at the 3-11 Triple Disaster in Japan

by Leanne Ogasawara

Tokyo and Tochigi with respect to location of meltdowns



It was around midnight, Los Angeles time. And my mobile pinged with an incoming message.

“Sorry to text so late, but you should turn on the TV.”

It was from an old friend. He didn’t text me often, so I knew something was wrong.

I grabbed my laptop. There was an email from my husband back in Japan.

Daijoubu.” It said. I’m OK.

I then logged on to Facebook, where I saw my first images of the earthquake.

By then, almost an hour had passed and communications throughout eastern Japan were overloaded. Working in Tokyo, my husband had no way of knowing when he sent me that first text that the earthquake had occurred over two hundred miles north, off the coast of Sendai.

I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next day.

Kikuji Kawada/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


People will tell you, living in Japan means living with earthquakes. And it’s true. The country accounts for about twenty percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude six or greater. Being from Los Angeles, I am no stranger to earthquakes. But in Japan, tremors are a weekly occurrence. Over the years, I had grown used to their frequency and had learned to hear them coming in the rattling of windows, which I always sensed before the shaking started.

Shhh!… jishin desu! (Shhh!, I hear an earthquake!)

Friends talked about earthquakes like they talked about the weather. It was a way of making small talk. So was telling each other about recent purchases of disaster supplies. We all kept stockpiles. Like most Japanese people I know, despite always being prepared for the worst, my husband was always blasé about earthquakes when they happened.

But this time was different. Read more »

Tigers Tigers Everywhere

CaspiantigerWC On December 26, 2004 there was a magnitude 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sumatra. It caused a powerful tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of several countries and killed 240,000 people. News of the tsunami's destructive powers quickly made the rounds in the news media. We watched in horror and dismay the extent of the devastation. The earthquake registered 9.3, stronger than the one in Maule, Chili in February 2010, which was registered at 8.8. The 8.8 Chili quake was so strong that it shifted the Earth's crust, redistributing mass on such a scale that, according to NASA, it caused a shift in the Earth’s axis! The shift has been estimated at 8 centimeters, which affected the rate of the Earth's rotation and shortened the length of our day by some 1.26 microseconds.

As tremendous as the Chili quake was, the 2004 quake was stronger. But far stranger and much less reported—forty-four hours after the quake, NASA's newly launched Swift satellite, the Very Large Array, and other observatories picked up the arrival of a powerful gamma ray burst. A hundred times stronger than any gamma burst previously recorded, this one was as bright as a full moon, but radiated most of its energy in gamma wavelengths. This gamma burst temporarily altered the shape of our ionosphere and distorted radio transmissions. We tracked this gamma burst to activity in the neutron star SGR 1806-20, a soft gamma ray repeater, in the constellation Sagittarius, approximately 10 degrees northeast of the Galactic Center or about 45,000 light years from us.

Less than forty-eight hours after the biggest earthquake in twenty five years, a very intense gamma ray burst hit our planet! This gamma burst was 100 times brighter than anything we had seen in the twenty-five year history of gamma ray observation. Were these two highly unusual events related? We don't know how or why they would be, though it has been postulated that gravitational waves might have been a factor that set the earthquake into motion. Perhaps the gamma rays, that we monitored, were slowed down by scattering off dust particles, cosmic rays and such, making them proportionately slower than unimpeded gravitational waves that they might have been traveling with. Or perhaps the gravitational waves were going at superluminal speed—also a possibility—hitting the earth and setting off the quake and tsunami before the gamma rays could catch up. At this point who knows?

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