Last night must have been simultaneously a thrilling and terrifying experience for Jody Bourgeois. A professor in the University of Washington's department of earth and space sciences, Bourgeois has devoted years and years of research to tsunamis and earthquakes. Amazingly, she was working in Japan when the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake and destructive tsunami struck. Bourgeois survived the disaster unscathed, and dispatched an e-mail to UW describing the experience.
"I felt the earthquake big time," Bourgeois writes. "The shaking lasted almost three minutes and I got motion sickness. There were several large aftershocks."
Bourgeois has done "extensive tsunami research along Asia's Pacific Coast," and, according to her faculty profile, has "been involved in documenting evidence for paleo-mega-tsunamis associated with asteroid impacts."
Fortunately, the recent tsunami in Japan was not caused by an asteroid. Still, the devastation has been epic. The 8.9 quake is the fifth-largest on record (for comparison's sake, the 2010 Haiti earthquake was a 7.0), and according to initial reports hundreds of people have been killed. The ensuing tsunami, the AP reports, "carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires that burned out of control."
Bourgeois says her earthquake experience prompted mixed emotions.
"We spent several hours watching live video feeds while people ran in and out with new seismograms and tide gauge records," she writes. "You can imagine that this place is abuzz. The videos look terrible, though it is scientifically interesting to me."
Update 1:42 p.m.: Even amid the chaos in Japan, Bourgeois was nice enough to conduct an e-mail Q&A with Seattle Weekly. Here's the transcript of our chat:
How severe was the shaking where you are?
I am in Sapporo, Hokkaido, north of the main rupture. Here the shaking was moderate. It was the long duration that was striking-- at least three minutes. We also felt a number of aftershocks.
Was anyone injured there?
Not to my knowledge, but the sun is just rising here. We are on the protected side of the island, from this tsunami, but the Pacific side definitely has damage; I don't know yet of any casualties, or of shaking damage.
What kind of tsunami activity did you see?
Thus far, what I have seen was on the live video feeds we watched yesterday at the Institute of Seismology and Volcanology at Hokkaido University. Even though I have before seen videos, I was astounded. Japan has many protective barriers in place, but the tsunami over-topped all the ones I saw.
How is this going affect your research?
I study the past record of tsunamis from the record they leave such as deposits of sand. Geologists have found such layers on the outer coast of Washington as well as in Puget Sound. In addition to learning more about how to respond to tsunami danger, I hope to be able to survey some of the effects in detail, once affected regions are stabilized and people are secure.
What do you hope to learn from this quake/tsunami?
What do you hope to learn from this quake/tsunami?
Every time we study a real event in real time, we can hone our skills in understanding prehistoric events. Because Japan is so densely populated and instrumented with seismographs and other equipment, and because there are so many videos of this particular tsunami, from helicopters and tall buildings as it arrived, we stand to learn significantly more about how tsunamis behave as they come ashore. Japan is the leader in such research, and it's an honor to be able to work with them.
Was there any information to suggest a disaster like this could happen in Japan?
Definitely, and they knew it, although this was one of the largest events in a long time -- spanning a long stretch of the coastline. Last year I was on a field trip on the Sendai plain, and we saw the sand layer from a tsunami in 869 AD that was perhaps about the same scale as this one. Japan's coast has been repeatedly hit by tsunamis, in any one place as large or larger than this one, but this tsunami affected a very long stretch of the coastline at once.
When was the last time Japan had an earthquake and/or tsunami of this magnitude?
I don't know the complete historical and prehistorical [geologic] record here well enough to answer without some research and checking with colleagues, but yesterday in my institute, it was discussed that on this part of Japan's coastline, the last event of this magnitude was in 869 AD.
What's next for you? How long were you scheduled to be in Japan and when will you return?
I am scheduled to return on 31 March, after a workshop with Japanese, Russian, and American colleagues on our recent research on the Kuril Islands just north of here. At this point, it's not clear we can still hold that workshop -- though Sapporo seems fine, it depends on the infrastructure in the rest of Japan whether travel will be possible and reasonable. Also, depending on what happens next, I might consider extending my stay to help with post-tsunami surveys. Japanese scientists are well equipped to do this, so I would like to help so that I can learn along with them. [i.e., they don't "need" me].
Bourgeois signed off saying, "My heart goes out now to the people of Japan."