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Lessons from Honshu earthquake: Building Codes Save Lives

12.03.2011, Age: 3881 days

Modern building regulations and a strong geohazard awareness clearly increase the chance for people to survive a major natural disaster. This is the main lesson that we learn from yesterday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Christchurch earthquake and several major earthquakes in China.

While our understanding of earthquake mechanisms and seismologists' ability to predict where (but not when) the next earthquake will occur increase, the main contribution of science to people's safety still is improving the hazard awareness of the population and improving the building structure of houses and infrastructure.

When we compare the damage and number of casualties from two events just over a year ago, the M7.0 Haiti earthquake and the the M8.8 earthquake and tsunami in Chile, the difference is immediately obvious. Local geological differences aside, the smaller number of casualties and damage in Chile can be entirely ascribed to the strong public awareness, high quality of hazard training starting in kindergarten,  and strict building regulations promoted by the authorities.

Like in Chile and many other developed countries, the Japanese population knows exactly where to go when an earthquake or tsunami strikes. Annual safety drills, earthquake-resistant buildings and escape routes are just a few factors that help save people's lives. See the blog by James Glanz and Norimitsu Onishi Japan's Strict Building Codes Saved Lives in New York Times.

This spectacular video of swaying skyscrapers in Tokyo illustrates the point about building codes.

Although it is too early to say anything certain about the extent of the damage and number of casualties, this is clearly an area where collaboration between geoscientists, engineers, social scientists, educators and legislators can play a vital role for society.

See also: Prepublication of article in Scientific American Seconds Before the Big One: Progress in Earthquake Alarms - Earthquake detection systems can sound the alarm in the moments before a big tremor strikes-time enough to save lives. By Richard Allen. March 11, 2011.

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