Lessons from Japan, while in Japan

A tsunami of a different type- the recent Japanese experience sheds light on what to expect for low-lying islanders

En route to the recent UNFCCC negotiations in Bangkok last month, I had the opportunity to fly over Japan for a brief layover in Tokyo. It was a somber experience, as I was flying on ANA (a Japanese airline), and I was one of the only non-Japanese passengers. The group seemed (understandably and appropriately) shaken. I saw plenty of devastation below from my small window, and it was humbling and very sad to fly over the powerful Pacific and the Japanese shores on the heels of their devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
This fragile and sensitive moment in the air with my fellow passengers  made me think about the small island nations that face imminent sea level rise, and what it’s like, as a people group, to live with a heightened sense of fear, anxiety, or mourning- particularly when facing the ominous rising ocean.
Minutes later I was in the Tokyo airport, still musing and pondering the power of the tsunami and the impact it will continue to have on these people. I was just powering my cell phone on to make a quick call to my husband, looking around in a crowded airport gift-shop. Suddenly the ground started shaking, and people started running and screaming. We were experiencing an earthquake. Closely followed by a second. As it turned out, it was just a minor rumbling – I risk seeming melodramatic in this post, because the televisions promptly reported that it was only a 5.0 and there were no tsunami warnings.
However, it was raw and touching to share the experience with those in the airport who carry the recent events with them in a visceral, painful way. The shop workers didn’t return to their shops for quite some time, and some of them cried. Each quake they experience must seem like a terrible reminder of the power of the earth and its unpredictability. Each rumbling serves as both a reminder and an opportunity for panic when the images of the mighty black wave are still so fresh.
The recent events in Japan are unique, but there are lessons to be learned that apply far beyond Japan’s borders. The so-called “drowning islands” of the world- those shrinking, fragile pillows of sand that peek above the water level- share something in common with those I encountered during my brief stay in Japan. A rising tide is a rising tide, and facing the possibility of water-inundation is a terrifying experience, whether the warning comes because of a possible tsunami or heightened sea-levels and climate change.

6 responses

  1. rogerthesurf

    I know a lot about earthquakes because there have been three under my city since September, which though not such large events as experienced in Japan, were locally something like eight times more violent than what was felt in Japan.
    Fortunately we did not get a tsunami.
    To give you an idea of the difference on the ground. I read that maximum ground acceleration on the land from the very large Japanese event was .25G. In my city we had 2.2G which is more than eight times more violent. During these events, which fortuantely were of shorter duration than the event(s) in Japan, there was no running around or communicating with ones neigbour. All you could do was crouch and hold on.

    Anyway, your point about rising sea levels.

    Allow me to ask you a question.

    The IPCC has stated that the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap will raise sea levels by as much as 7 meters.
    Do you know what time frame the IPCC has put on this event?




    May 3, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    • Hi Roger- thanks for sharing a bit about your experience. I’m so glad that there wasn’t a tsunami after the Christchurch earthquakes and I’m glad that you’re okay!

      As I am not a scientist, I’m going to direct you to the IPCC’s website for so many details on their analysis of sea level rise. If you want to read about individual stories regarding water, climate change, refugee questions, etc., please feel free to check back! Best wishes to you. http://www.ipcc.ch/

      May 3, 2011 at 5:54 pm

  2. rogerthesurf


    Thanks for your reply, the only injury from the Christchurch earthquake I received was to my pride as I huddled under my desk and watched the walls moving as if I was in a martini shaker.

    Please understand that I am trying to warn you about the obscure language of the IPCC by asking you the question about the 7 meter sea level rise.
    Of course I know the answer, and of course I can point you to the paragraph in the IPCC report that deals with it. I am just interested if you know about it.

    Because you are concerned with sea level rise, it is important that you go to the source of these assertions rather than listen to media exaggerations etc.

    Please see if you can come up with the answer.




    May 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm

  3. Mwema

    What Japanese have experienced will last for centuries. It is not easy to tell the story of earthquakes!

    May 4, 2011 at 6:32 am

  4. Hi Brook,

    Do you know what South Pacific island this is a picture of?


    November 13, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    • Hi Sandra,

      I took this photo from a sea plane in the Maldives. You are welcome to use it if you would like- feel free to email me at bmeakins@me.com. Thanks for your interest!

      November 14, 2011 at 12:13 pm

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