At first sight, it seems silly to compare the town of Olympia, Washington (population 52,000) with Tokyo, Japan (population between 10 and 40 million, depending on how many suburbs we count). But they have an important factor in common: Both are located near an active volcano. And in both cases, the volcano is 60 miles from the city center. In Olympia, countless sailboats line the waterfront where Budd Inlet forms the connection with Puget Sound, the Salish Sea, and finally the Pacific Ocean. With quaint shops in historic downtown buildings and the State Capitol rising proudly over the town silhouette, it’s hard to realize that this is part of the world’s infamous Ring of Fire. On its eastern side, the ring runs all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost end of South America. When Ferdinand Magellan christened the ocean with its peaceful name, his ships were emerging from the horribly rough strait north of Cape Horn. Captain and crew were ecstatic to find calmer waters.
But the Pacific isn’t peaceful. Tokyo, on the other side of its rim, runs the same risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as Olympia. It takes a stretch of the imagination to look at those thousands of ultra-modern high-rise buildings from the glassed-in walkway on the 2,080-foot Skytree Tower and think “earthquake, followed by eruptions and ash cloud”.
For centuries, the Pacific has been a great trade route between Asia, Indonesia and the Americas, as well as Australia and New Zealand. As a result, the largest concentrations of people have emerged on its coastlines. While Olympia, and even Seattle, project a kind of “hometown” atmosphere, the feeling quickly turns to awe at the sight of megacities like Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. Yet most of the Pacific Coast, on both continents, is defined by the edges of the tectonic plates that make up the earth’s mosaic. The promise of employment, food, and economic prosperity keeps the population at the edge of the Pacific. But it also puts many millions at risk from some natural event. New Zealand’s Whakaari Volcano has just given a demonstration last month, with the death toll limited to 18. Much bigger calamities are likely. On our side of the Pacific, San Francisco is on top of my list of worries as the next earthquake seems inevitable.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.