Gravity of disaster registers with U.S. scientists

Posted: March 13, 2011

The first pressure waves from the Japan earthquake reached the East Coast of the United States in about 13 minutes, arriving at 1 a.m. Friday after speeding through the earth at up to 29,000 miles an hour.

You couldn't feel it, but the energy transmitted through the earth was so tremendous that the ground in this area slowly rose about an inch before settling back down, said Jonathan Nyquist, professor of earth and environmental science at Temple University. Aftershocks could be measured throughout the day.

Much like civilians glued to TV screens, scholars were watching the readings from their seismometers Friday and hoping to draw lessons from Japan for future research. Engineers at Lehigh University, for example, already had been collaborating with Japanese colleagues to design better evacuation centers for withstanding a tsunami.

There is one way Americans probably won't be of much help, however, according to a Lehigh economist and former Marine with disaster-relief expertise: by sending food and clothing.

"I think it makes people feel like they're doing something, and there's a tax deduction, but it doesn't do good," said associate professor of economics Frank R. Gunter.

Medical assistance will be useful to the Japanese in the first three days, but the only outfit in position to offer that is the U.S. Navy, he said.

By the time international aid organizations arrive, that initial critical period will have passed, said Gunter, who as a Marine colonel helped coordinate 2004's tsunami relief effort in Indonesia. A wealthy nation with excellent medical care and abundant food, Japan will be in good shape, he said.

Engineering assistance, on the other hand, is apparently welcome.

Clay J. Naito, associate professor of structural engineering at Lehigh, is among those working with the Japanese on better tsunami evacuation centers. He is part of a multi-university team with National Science Foundation funding.

There is often little warning of a tsunami, so people do not have time to get to higher ground. One solution is to build evacuation centers raised high on columns, but such structures must be able to withstand big hits, Naito said.

In addition to the force of the water, there is the battering from waterborne debris, including items as large as shipping containers and even houses, as was seen Friday, Naito said.

At Lehigh, the group plans to suspend shipping containers from a giant pendulum and ram them into test columns of different sizes, he said.

The Japan tsunami was big enough to cause rising waters in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Officials at the New Jersey Geological Survey did not expect to see any measurable effect on sea level on the East Coast, a spokesman said.

But the signal that traveled through the earth was loud and clear. Temple's Nyquist said the inch rise in the ground was calculated by colleagues at Columbia University, based on instrument readings.

And aftershocks were clearly visible on readings from a seismometer stationed at Temple's Ambler campus, said Nyquist.

"The whole surface of the Earth rings when one of these things goes off," he said.

Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or

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