The double-hit earthquake that struck the city of Kumamoto in Japan last week was some 1,000 miles away from the infamous 2011 Miyagi earthquake. But all of the Japanese islands straddle the huge boundary that separates the Eurasian Plate from the Pacific one.
This seam in the earth’s crust is a reminder that the solid ground we take for granted is really paper-thin. Between the plate that houses Europe and Asia, and the one carrying the Pacific Ocean, trouble comes from deep down.
About 1,200 miles south of Kumamoto, Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991. It covered the island of Luzon with a deadly blanket of ash, mud and lava fragments. Still farther south are hundreds of islands belonging to Indonesia, where the volcanic eruptions of Krakatau and the 2004 tsunami wreaked havoc in the past.
The Pinatubo eruption demonstrated that misery likes company, as far as natural disasters are concerned. As people were fleeing the volcano, leaving Luzon for safer ground, Typhoon Yunya hit the island on the same day that the volcano was erupting. This produced a nasty mix of volcanic ash and hurricane rain with high winds, hindering rescue efforts and evacuations alike.
When one examines a section of the gigantic fault line from Japan to Indonesia, it becomes clear that this is also one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The Tokyo metropolis alone has 13 million residents. Japan as a whole has 128 million. In the Philippines, there are another 100 million people. Indonesia’s population is 257 million, of which about 10 million live in and around Jakarta.
As of yet, no disaster movie has risen to the scale of what can really happen on that western rim of the Pacific. Yunya was a category 1 hurricane when it hit Luzon. The April 15 quake didn’t involve Tokyo. But eventually, a Category 5 storm may graze northward from Indonesia to Japan, Superstorm Sandy-style, the way we saw it happen on the U.S. East Coast.
At the same time, Pinatubo or one of the many other volcanoes will produce a major eruption, along with an earthquake and a tsunami. The tsunami waves will add to the storm surge from the hurricane, while buildings are already collapsing in the quake. Just like “The Big One” that’s going to hit San Francisco, Calif., the question isn’t “if?” but “when?”