It may look as if a cotton ball is floating over Mount Fuji in this satellite image, but it's actually a cloud — the kind of cloud that's known to give an otherworldly look to Japan's highest peak.
This picture was snapped by DigitalGlobe's WorldView 2 satellite on Sept. 20, and it's currently the front-runner in the company's contest to select the year's top image. Cast a vote for your favorite on DigitalGlobe's Facebook page, and check back in January to find out which picture wins out.
The perspective from above — 478 miles (770 kilometers) above, to be exact — just adds to the eerieness.
This cottony mountaintop picture is today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which serves up a fresh image of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Click on the links below to gather up the goodies you may have missed:
The Tokyo Skytree is considered the world's tallest broadcasting tower and the second-tallest human-made structure, so you should expect it to cast a blocks-long shadow on its surroundings in Japan's capital. The only building taller is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — which rises 2,717 feet high, compared with the 2,080-foot Skytree.
The Skytree offers a restaurant and observation decks as well as broadcasting facilities for eight TV networks and two FM radio stations. There's a shopping arcade next door that includes a planetarium and aquarium. The complex had its official opening in May and is expected to draw 32 million visitors a year — which is more than Tokyo Disneyland's typical tally.
This picture of the Skytree and its tall shadow was captured on April 7 by one of DigitalGlobe's orbiting satellites, and ranks among the company's top 20 images for 2012. Facebook users have been invited to press their "like" buttons to vote for their favorite pictures over the next week. On Dec. 19, the field will be narrowed down to the top five — and then there'll be a Facebook vote for the year's top satellite picture. Check out DigitalGlobe's blog for more about the contest.
For more awe-inspiring sights from space, click through these past entries from our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar. We're featuring a fresh view of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. And because you've been extra good this year, I've added a couple of Web links to other cosmic Advent calendars:
Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 13: At one point I added a phrase saying that Burj Khalifa was six stories higher than the Tokyo Skytree, but as a few commenters have pointed out, those would be mighty big stories, at roughly 100 feet per story. Sixty stories would be closer to the mark. Thanks for pointing out the estimating error, and apologies for getting it wrong.
A chart of the area between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Japan Trench shows the amount of fault slip due to the March 2011 earthquake. The red area denotes slip of 50 meters (196 feet) or more. The question mark represents the researchers' current lack of information about the seismic potential of the region south of last year's quake.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
One year ago, the earthquake that struck Japan literally changed the spin of our planet and the length of our day — but today, the biggest mystery surrounding the event is what didn't happen: Why wasn't the Tohoku earthquake even bigger?
"We really don't know what's going to happen in the future," said Thomas Heaton, director of Caltech's Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory. "And by the way, one of the big questions nobody seems to be talking about is ... why was Tohoku so small? Where's the rest of it? Was this a foreshock? We don't know that. Honestly, it was mostly in the northern part of the [Japan] trench. The southern part of the trench doesn't seem to have gone."
It may sound strange to talk about a magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami as something that's mystifyingly small. But the way Heaton sees it, the unusual scenario that played out on March 11, 2011, shows how much we still have to learn about how earthquakes work. Moreover, it shows that scientists may not fully understand the mechanism of seismic shocks for the foreseeable future.
"The most obvious lesson learned is to plan for the unexpected," Heaton said.
Surprises from the Japan Trench Scientists have long known that the Japan Trench, where the oceanic Pacific Plate dives beneath the continental Okhotsk Plate, was seismically active. It's part of the "Pacific Ring of Fire" that runs like a horseshoe around the ocean's edge. But scientists and engineers thought the trench wasn't capable of generating earthquakes that big — and so they designed structures such as seawalls and nuclear power plants to fit what they saw as prudent probabilities.
"The real problem is that currently there's a view among society, and engineers, that we design for a risk factor," Heaton said. "What's the hazard, and I will design according to the hazard. And once I've met certain design criteria, I have confidence that my structure will survive at some given level."
So what happens when the big, unexpected event happens? Seawalls are breached. Airports are wrecked. Towns are wiped out. Nuclear plants are swamped. "They believed their risk models, and they shouldn't have," Heaton said.
One year after Japan's earthquake and tsunami, NBC's Ian Williams reports from a serene wasteland in the fishing village of Otsuchi, which lies near mountains of debris.
He said engineers should take more of a common-sensical approach to construction design, rather than focusing so much on meeting the specifications dictated by risk analyses. "I think that we've really gotten ourselves off track there," Heaton said.
But Heaton said the geophysical shifts raise additional questions. Here's a potential biggie: Honshu has been subsiding for the past century, and the earthquake just added to the subsidence. That was unexpected, because seismologists assumed that an earthquake would release the crustal strain and result in an uplift.
"We know we can't continue to go down at these rates forever, or Honshu would just disappear in a million years or so," Heaton said. Will the island slowly stop sinking and then start rising again? Or will the strain continue to build until another big earthquake releases it?
"We don't know the answer to that, but it's a pretty important question," Heaton said.
Last May, a team of researchers from Caltech and elsewhere analyzed the seismic data from before and after the quake, and found that significant slip was experienced along a 150-mile length of the Japan Trench fault — which is about half the length that would have been expected for a magnitude-9.0 event. They also reported that the conditions they saw in the area of the quake's epicenter before March 11, 2011, still exist today in the area to the south, known as the Ibaraki region.
"It is important to note that we are not predicting an earthquake here," Caltech's Mark Simons, the study's lead author, said in a news release about the research. "However, we do not have data on the area, and therefore should focus attention there, given its proximity to Tokyo."
Nasty surprises Just this week, Japanese researchers reported that Tokyo could be more vulnerable to a magnitude-7 quake in northern Tokyo Bay than they previously thought, and they said older structures should be reinforced to meet more stringent standards. "If a building narrowly fulfills the law's standards, its quake resistance is not high," the Daily Yomiuri quoted seismologist Takuya Nagae as saying.
Heaton said it only makes sense to expect further surprises from seismological studies, including some nasty ones. "My experience as a human is that there's a good chance there's something we didn't know. ... It keeps coming up over and over again that there are major holes in our understanding of the system," he said.
If that's the case, it's prudent to plan for the unexpected. And that concept may apply to more than seismology.
"If you don't really know what's going to happen, what's the best strategy for dealing with life when you have all those uncertainties out there?" Heaton asked. "They're all over the place, like in the financial system. Or when are you going to die? Well, you could die from old age. Maybe you'll die from a heart attack. Maybe you'll die from bird flu. What's the risk of bird flu? ... You can't put a number on it. So what does that mean? Should we ignore bird flu? No, of course not. It means you should study it, and if there are easy things that society can do to minimize the chance of everybody getting bird flu, you should pursue them."
Are those words to live by? Or is the view that we don't know when or where the next Big One will come just too unsettling? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Satellite images tracked the catastrophic impact of Japan's magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on the Fukushima nuclear complex and other key sites, and now they're tracking the reconstruction.
To mark Sunday's anniversary of the disaster, DigitalGlobe is releasing pictures showing "before, during and after" views of the devastation. You can see the three views of Fukushima here — but you really should check out our interactive slideshow to get a better sense of the changes that have taken place over the past year at Fukushima and at the Port of Sendai, which was destroyed in the tsunami.
"I'm struck by the progress, by how efficient the Japanese have been in reconstructing their infrastructure," Steve Wood, vice president of DigitalGlobe's analysis center, told me today. "In less than a year they've been able to turn this port into an active, functioning component. That's significant, considering that a year ago there were shipping containers, fires and mud covering that entire area. ... And there are literally hundreds of examples of that up and down the coast."
In the hours, days and weeks after the March 11 quake, satellite operators funneled fresh imagery to disaster workers, relief groups, government agencies and private companies coping with the aftermath. "We saw everything from big industrial partners who wanted to see the status of their factories, to government agencies involved in the actual reconstruction," Wood said.
Japanese officials and the U.S. military used the images to figure out which places were best for setting up aid operations, while relief organizations scanned wide-scale maps to see which areas were most in need of help. In places where planes weren't allowed to fly, "we were effectively the only game in town" for that initial post-quake aerial imagery.
Today, satellite images provide an effective way to gauge how much progress is being made, through comparisons of the before-during-and-after views. "To communicate and explain that to people is really an important and powerful tool that I've seen evolve over the years," Wood said. Pictures from space were important in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami, they're important for Japan, and they'll be important for current and future hotspots such as Syria.
During Japan's crisis, Wood's team at DigitalGlobe was working 24/7, and the weeks and months have sped by. "It's hard for me to believe it's been a year," Wood said. For some of us, Sunday's anniversary may seem like a turning point — but it's really just one more day in the timeline of Japan's reconstruction. These pictures remind us that the work is far from finished.
A labeled version of the image from Feb. 2 shows the status of the four nuclear reactor buildings at the Fukushima plant.
A false-color virtual globe, centered on the Pacific Ocean, shows the propagation of tsunami waves from their seismic source off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. Black, purple and red denote the highest waves.
Last year's earthquake and tsunami was a catastrophe for Japan — but a problem averted for Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, partly due to luck and partly due to the success of long-range tsunami tracking. Now researchers are working to bring that success closer to home.
If a similar ocean wave were to target the U.S. coastline in the future — and seismologists say that's only a matter of time — the emergency response should be much improved, thanks to the lessons learned from last March's super-tsunami.
"Definitely there are a lot of lessons learned from a big event like that," Vasily Titov, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Tsunami Research, told me this week.
Titov and his colleagues, who are based at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, have focused for years on building better computer models to predict how tsunami waves will spread out from an undersea seismic shock like the one that rocked Japan. Tsunami trackers came in for a good deal of criticism after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. Since then, government agencies have worked together to fill in the gaps in an oceanwide network of deep-sea and surface-buoy sensors — and the upgrades paid off big time last year.
Readings from a network of more than 50 buoys — including the federal governnment's Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis system, or DART —tracked wave heights after a magnitude-9.0 shift in the ocean floor set off a giant wall of water. The waves rose as much as 6 feet in open ocean. "Ten years ago, people would say, 'Oh, it's not possible to have a tsunami that high,'" Titov said. "That was the event that I was hoping not to see in my life."
The computer model correctly predicted the level of flooding that Hawaii would face, seven hours after the earthquake. That provided enough time for a proper evacuation. "Deaths were avoided in Hawaii — I'm pretty confident about that," Titov said.
The model also showed that there'd be only minor impact on the West Coast, due to the fact that the tsunami wave arrived at low tide. "If the West Coast had high tide during tsunami, it would have been much different," Titov said. "There would have been flooding all over the place."
NOAA's Eddie Bernard narrates a video showing how the Honshu tsunami propagated outward from its center off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.
The next wave? Titov happens to be headquartered in a region that could become ground zero for a future Japan-style tsunami. Studies have indicated that the Cascadia subduction zone, off the coast of Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia, is capable of generating the same kind of ocean wave. In fact, it's thought that such a shock took place off the West Coast more than 300 years ago, setting off a tsunami wave that reached all the way to Japan.
Concerns about the next big wave, wherever it may come, is driving international efforts to track tsunami phenomena closer to the source. Last year's quake and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people, with many of those deaths coming along the coast. If Japanese authorities had had a quicker assessment of the tsunami threat, they might have launched more intensive evacuation efforts in the first half-hour after the earthquake was detected. Thousands more lives might have been saved.
"That has become the main challenge," Titov told me. "What can be done for this type of event?"
To get a better grip on the local effects of a tsunami, a different kind of monitoring system is needed — a system that has scores of interconnected sea-floor stations, situated close to the source of a potential tsunami shift. The stations would have to be equipped with seismometers and pressure gauges, and send real-time data via satellite links for sophisticated analysis.
Titov and his colleagues think they have come up with a solution to the challenge. "The system we developed worked better than expected," he said. "Detectors can be placed much closer to the source."
Now Japan is making plans to deploy a new $400 million network of 154 sensor stations straddling the Japan Trench, which was the source of last year's seismic shock. That network is due to be put into place in the 2014-2015 time frame. Meanwhile, NOAA is planning to move some of its DART buoys closer to the Cascadia subduction zone and other seismic hot spots.
Simulations suggest that the sensor system and upgraded analysis software can deliver an accurate assessment of local flooding in 30 minutes or less. That might still require authorities to go ahead with pre-emptive evacuations in some areas, even if the initial tsunami alert turns out to be a false alarm. "While the timing is challenging, the situation is manageable," Titov said.
Maintaining the network At the same time, the existing network of tsunami-tracking buoys needs to be maintained. One of the problems that came to light after the 2004 tsunami was that some of the buoys in the DART network were prone to failure. One critic complained that the tsunami monitoring system was like "a fire alarm that cannot ring."
"The problem is that even that strong array is budgetarily difficult to maintain," Titov said. "That has become the main challenge. We're trying to figure out how to maintain it."
Titov said he found it hard to believe that it's already been a year since that horrible day — March 11, 2011, which is known as "3-11" in Japan. "My heart goes out to all the Japanese," he said. "A lot of our colleagues are from Japan. This has become very personal."
That personal perspective sharpens Titov's desire to develop faster, better ways to predict the paths of the giant waves to come.
"The fact that it's been a year already makes me a little nervous," he told me. "I want to move fast with this research so we're ready for the next tsunami."
One year after Japan's earthquake warning system was put to its sternest real-world test, U.S. researchers have built a system that could provide the same type of advance alerts for quake-prone California — the only problem is that they can't afford to get it ready for prime time.
"I've got a system that works in my office," said Thomas Heaton, director of Caltech's Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory. "It works for maybe 100 of us who are prototyping the system. It's been a grassroots effort where a number of scientists have cobbled it together as a demonstration project. But to turn it into a system where literally 50 million Americans would have everything linked into it? It's not ready for that."
The California network, known as Earthquake Early Warning or ShakeAlert, has been in development since long before the magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami that swept over Japan last March 11. It operates much like the Japanese network does: Readings from about 400 seismic monitoring stations around California are processed on a real-time basis, and when a quake is detected, computer software figures out how long it will take seismic waves to reach your location.
The system takes advantage of the fact that two types of seismic waves emanate from the epicenter: The first waves to arrive are primary waves, or P waves, which are followed by slower secondary waves, or S waves. The S waves, which travel through Earth's crust at a speed of about 2 miles per second, produce more up-and-down motion and tend to be more damaging. The P waves serve as precursors, enabling experts to estimate the intensity and arrival time for the S waves that will follow.
If the projected intensity is above the level you're worried about, your computer will start sounding an alarm and clicking through a countdown, as seen in the video above.
"Right now it's working as well as you could hope for a kludged-together demonstration project from a bunch of professors," Heaton told me. He can adjust the controls downward to be alerted about minor quakes heading toward Caltech in Pasadena, or turn them up so high he can work undisturbed in his office.
"You can go days without anything, and then a day comes when there's a cluster," he said.
The Japanese system, which was developed at an estimated cost of $500 million, turned in a stellar performance during last year's quake. As the video below demonstrates, Tokyo residents had as much as 30 seconds' warning before the shaking began.
Japanese video shows how an alert system provided advance warning of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011.
Thirty seconds may not sound like much warning, but it's enough time to shut off gas mains and issue a warning to take cover. In Japan, the warnings are flashed via radio and TV, as well as through computer links and mobile phones. Automated broadcast alerts can be set to turn on a car's emergency flashers and warn drivers to slow down and pull over. The same principle is applied to safeguarding Japan's extensive rail system: Thanks to automated warnings, two dozen trains that were operating in the earthquake zone on March 11 were brought to a halt within seconds, with no reports of serious injuries or damage.
Bugs in the system During last year's catastrophe, the biggest problem had to do with the fact that the closer residents were to the quake's epicenter, the less warning they received. Another issue was that the complexity of the initial seismic shock and the aftershocks caused the system to become overloaded, leading to a temporary shutdown.
Heaton and his colleagues are encountering similar bugs in the California system. "They're always being engineered to be better systems and less buggy, but we'll never eliminate all the bugs," he said. Right now, the team is working on an Android app version of ShakeAlert. Even the app would be unsuitable for mass distribution, however.
"The technology exists to deploy it, but strategically, I don't see how we could ever support it," Heaton said.
Going public with ShakeAlert would require a more concerted effort, backed by the expertise and funds that are typically associated with federal government agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey. So far, the USGS has spent about $2 million on ShakeAlert, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is backing the research with $6 million in contributions to Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington over the next three years. Other supporters include Google.org and Deutsche Telekom's Silicon Valley Innovation Center.
The California Integrated Seismic Network estimates that a statewide quake warning system would cost about $80 million over five years, while the cost of a similar system for the Pacific Northwest has been estimated at $70 million. But it might take additional funding to get the system as fully linked in with society as Japan's system is now.
"Ultimately, when it does run, you don't want university professors running it," Heaton said, with a tone of amiable self-deprecation. "We're the least reliable people to run something like that."
Realistically, will ShakeAlert ever be ready for prime time? Heaton thinks it might take more than a catastrophic earthquake on the other side of the world to get Americans motivated about earthquake alerts at home.
"My experience at this point in my life is that it's hard to get people to focus on things like this unless something bad happens," he said. "It's been really peaceful and quiet in the western U.S. for quite some time now. ... We're very concentrated on our own issues. We were shocked by what happened [in Japan], but not enough to actually do something."
Caltech's demonstration of the Earthquake Early Warning System's computer software simulates a countdown for seismic waves (in yellow and red) spreading outward from a theoretical magnitude-7.5 earthquake on California's Elsinore fault line toward Los Angeles.
Longer-range prediction? If it's hard to put in a system based on well-tested geophysics that provides a warning just seconds in advance of the Big One, it's a lot harder to extend the lead time to hours, or days. But people keep trying.
"One prediction that we have learned to make following earthquakes, and this one is a very strong prediction, is that several people will claim to have predicted the earthquake," Heaton joked.
Some researchers are trying to determine whether a statistical analysis of earthquake clustering can lead to better assessments of the chances that a big earthquake will follow smaller tremors. This month's issue of Physics World looks into the prospects for short-term probabilistic forecasting, as well as the controversy surrounding the researchers who didn't predict the deadly 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy (and are now facing manslaughter charges).
Heaton is doubtful that statistics could ever predict the onset of future quakes with the kind of reliability people expect. He noted that 50 percent of all earthquakes have foreshocks, and one quake out of 20 turns out to be a foreshock for a larger quake. "We can say, yeah, earthquakes come in clumps, but to get more particular and specific — personally, I don't think it's very helpful," he said. "What are people going to do with that information, anyway?"
It's possible that some as-yet-unknown mechanism might provide advance indications that a big quake is coming. "There are interesting observations that seem to be reliable about phenomena that are totally mysterious to us," Heaton acknowledged. "Many of them concern electrical phenomena."
"I think we know some things that animals are unlikely to do — that is, pick up vibrations from the earth," he told me. "There may be other things out there that are happening that we don't understand very well. So I'm not going to say 'never' to something like that. But the more we think about the problem, the more we recognize that once an earthquake starts, at some point, trying to predict how big it will get before it stops seems to be a particularly difficult dynamics problem."
This recording of the 2011 Japan earthquake was taken near the Japanese coastline between Tokyo and the Fukushima nuclear reactor site. Georgia Tech researchers converted the seismic waves into audio files.
One recording is based on seismometer readings taken on March 11, 2011, along the Japanese coastline between Tokyo and the hard-hit Fukushima nuclear complex. The audio starts with a bang — the magnitude-9.0 shock — and continues with the pounding noise of aftershocks that sound like a bull knocking over shelves in a china shop.
Readings from seismometers that were place about 90 miles away from the quake's epicenter reveal a double-barreled bang. That suggests there were "at least two patches of high-frequency radiation from the mainshock rupture," the researchers note.
A third clip is based on readings from California. The Japan quake sparked deep rumblings in the San Andreas Fault, which begin with a sound like distant thunder, and then continue with a crackle that represents "induced tremor activity at the fault," the Georgia Tech team says.
The audio was created by taking the seismic signals, which are typically detected in the 0.01 to 100 Hz frequency range, and speeding the soundtrack by a factor of 50 to 100 times. That brings the sound into the audible range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and crunches hours' worth of data into less than a minute of audio.
This recording was taken about 90 miles from the Japanese earthquake's epicenter. There are two distinct sound waves. Both are caused by the main shock. A "pop" is heard 90 seconds (in actual time) after the main event. This pop wasn't recorded at any other nearby stations, leading Georgia Tech's Zhigang Peng to believe that the ground shifted immediately under the measuring station.
In this recording of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, taken from measurements in California, the quake created subtle movements deep in the San Andreas Fault. The initial noise, which sounds like distant thunder, corresponds with the Japanese main shock. Afterwards, a continuous high-pitch sound, similar to rainfall that turns on and off, represents induced tremor activity at the fault.
In these YouTube videos, the seismic data is also displayed on a graph.
"By combining seismic auditory and visual information, static 'snapshots' of earthquake data come to life," Georgia Tech's Zhigang Peng and his colleagues write in the March-April edition of Seismological Research Letters. "In addition, this approach allows the audience to relate seismic signals generated by earthquakes to familiar sounds such as thunder, popcorn popping, rattlesnakes, gunshots, firecrackers, etc."
The researchers say that seismic audifications can make it easier to explain the concept of distant quake triggering to general audiences, and that they also provide a tool for experts to identify and understand such seismic signals in other regions. What do you think? Do these clips give you a better feel for how seismic events get started and keep rattling on?
Japanese and Russian researchers have been working for years to find a suitable woolly mammoth specimen in the Siberian permafrost, and they recently told Japan's Kyodo news service that they recovered what they hope will be viable bone marrow from a frozen thigh bone recovered near Batagay in eastern Russia's Sakha Republic (a.k.a. Yakutia).
Their plan is to take the nuclei from bone marrow cells, transplant them into egg cells extracted from elephants, and implant the cloned embryos into the wombs of mama elephants for gestation. This is the technique that has given rise to cloned mammals ranging from Dolly the sheep to pigs, cats, dogs and monkeys.
Kyodo's report says "there is a high likelihood" that biologically active nuclei can be extracted from the frozen marrow. Researchers on the case include Russian experts from Yakutsk's Mammoth Museum and Japanese biologists from Kinki University in Osaka Prefecture. Kyodo said a full-fledged joint research project would be launched next year.
"DNA from a woolly mammoth is a mess," he explained. "It's fractured into very short pieces, and there's a lot of postmortem DNA damage other than just breakage. The code gets damaged a lot."
Even if the DNA is intact and the nuclei are successfully merged with elephant egg cells, the success rate for cloning animals — and particularly extinct and near-extinct species — is not good. Generally speaking, there are scores of failures for each successful pregnancy brought to term.
These cases suggest that there's not much of a chance of re-creating the mammoths. Genetic engineering may eventually produce a "hairy elephant" with mammoth-like characteristics. But a creature genetically identical to the behemoths of the Ice Age? "If somebody does that, I will eat my hat," Miller said. "And I'll wonder why they did it."
Miller said studying the DNA of long-extinct species has value, even if the efforts don't result in a resurrection.
"I'm looking out my window, and 13,000 years ago, there were some really interesting animals out there," he mused. "They're gone now, and I'd like to know why. ... Understanding which species survived and which ones didn't, looking at their genome and trying to figure that out, that's interesting to me."
But when it comes to living, breathing animals, "I'm personally more interested in keeping the species we have," Miller said. "I'd like to keep tigers around for a while."
Despite Miller's qualms, the quest to re-create the woolly mammoth could well continue for the next five years or longer. And that's not all. Paleontologist Jack Horner is moving ahead with his plan to modify chicken DNA and make the barnyard birds look more like the dinosaurs they descended from. Dino-chickens vs. woolly mammephants? That sounds like a great plot for the next "Jurassic Park" sequel. ...
Onlookers get a panoramic view of the city of Tokyo from the first observatory deck during a media preview of the Tokyo Sky Tree tower this week. Some Japanese lawmakers have proposed constructing a "backup city" that could take on the capital's functions in the event of a catastrophe.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
It sounds like a story ripped from the parody-filled pages of The Onion, but some Japanese lawmakers really do want to build a "backup city" that would take over the functions of Tokyo, including tourism, in the event of a catastrophe.
The idea was floated last month at a Tokyo luncheon, with a follow-up in The Telegraph last week. "The idea of being able to have a backup, a spare battery for the functions of the nation ... isn't this really a good idea?" Hajime Ishii, a parliamentarian representing the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was quoted as saying.
Support for creating an urban Plan B has grown in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March and led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. "Preparations are already under way at various levels to find ways of mitigating possible far-reaching consequences of a much-expected earthquake striking Tokyo," the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan said.
The lawmakers' plan calls for building an urban center known as IRTBBC (Integrated Resort, Tourism, Business and Backup City) or NEMIC (National Emergency Management International City) on the 1,236-acre site currently occupied by Osaka International Airport at Itami. Today, Itami is used only as a secondary hub for domestic flights, operating in the shadow of the newer Kansai airport.
The new city would take on all the functions of the capital city in the event of an emergency. It would boast office complexes, resort facilities, parks and even casinos. The city's centerpiece would be a tower that would rank among the tallest in the world, coming in at just over 650 meters (2,133 feet). It'd be built to house 50,000 residents and accommodate a workday population of around 200,000 people from the Osaka region, The Telegraph reported.
If the plan goes forward, it would rank among history's most ambitious backup plans. The backers haven't calculated the cost of building the city. For now, Ishii and his fellow lawmakers — including the Democratic Party's Banri Kaieda, Shizuka Kamei of the People's New Party and Ichiro Aisawa of the Liberal Democrats — are merely seeking 14 million yen ($180,000) for a feasibility study.
So far, the reaction has been mixed: Osaka's governor, Toru Hashimoto, has been quoted as saying that his region is willing to accept the capital backup role, while Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has voiced opposition. And he may not be the only one: It just seems to me that most emergency-management officials, if not most politicians, would prefer to fortify what they have rather than building a whole new complex someplace else. Of course, I could be wrong about that.
For months, citizen scientists in Japan have been trying to shine a brighter public spotlight on radiation readings from the region surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster site, in part because there was so little information coming from the Japanese government in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that touched off the crisis.
Now Yahoo Japan is adding to that spotlight by offering a map-centric database of readings via Radiation.Yahoo.co.jp.
Kyodo News Service quotes an official from Yahoo Japan as saying that the beta service displays data gathered at 11 locales, including Tokyo, Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, Sendai and the city of Chiba. More observation points will be added in the future, the official is quoted as saying.
Sean Bonner, a Los Angeles-based organizer for the non-governmental Safecast radiation-monitoring project, said his group is making a significant contribution to Yahoo Japan's service — even though it wasn't acknowledged in the Kyodo report.
"It says the data was collected by Keio University, but in fact it's the data that we (Safecast) collected and Keio is helping with," Bonner told me in an email. "It's the same data that we are displaying on our site, and was collected with the devices we designed and installed."
A rabbit without long ears? Supposedly living just outside the 19-mile (30-kilometer) exclusion zone surrounding Japan's radiation-stricken Fukushima nuclear site? Now there's a video that's made to go viral!
The YouTube clip has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it was uploaded two weeks ago, and it's sparking all sorts of speculation about the mutation risk to other living things due to the radiation leak. The problem is, you can't really tell anything about genetic risks from one mutant rabbit — particularly when the mutation has been seen lots of times before, without any connection to radiation exposure. There's this run-of-the-mill earless rabbit from Britain, for example. And this rabbit. And these rabbits. And ... well, we could pile on the cute bunny pictures all day. Rabbits have even been known to lose their ears due to overgrooming rather than genetic causes. So it's way too big a leap to blame this one on Fukushima's radiation leak, let alone suggest that humans might suffer a heightened incidence of birth defects.
If you really want to find out what's going on in Japan, check out "After the Wave," msnbc.com's special report about the aftermath of the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. The concerns about Fukushima's long-term legacy are serious enough without playing the cute-animal card. Although I have to admit the video is pretty cute.
Update for 3 p.m. ET: University of Miami biologist Dana Krempels, an expert on rabbits, provided this perspective in an email:
"There are many different reasons a rabbit may be born this way or acquire this characteristic early on, not least of which is a stressed mother rabbit who overgrooms her babies to the point of mutilation. This is the most common reason we see baby bunnies with missing ears or limbs. So while it's possible that the earless condition of this baby is congenital (i.e., bun was born with it), it's also possible that it was acquired after birth.
"I have to wonder whether there are any other bunnies in the group that have anomalies like that. I didn't see any. And that would make me very hesitant to cry 'Radiation!' just because one baby bunny is missing his external ear pinnae.
"I can't tell from the video whether the bunny has ear canals covered by the fur. If not, that would tell us that this isn't a result of a mother's overgrooming, but rather some kind of birth defect. Whether it's due to radiation or some other factor is not possible to say, since these types of malformations do occasionally occur in the absence of known mutagens.
"Sadly, only time will tell whether the radiation leaks are affecting the germline (i.e., the cells that will become eggs or sperm) or embryos of human and non-human animals in the irradiated regions of Japan. But a sample size of one bunny is far too small to make a positive conclusion."
Underwater robots, including the SARbot shown here making a test dive on Tuesday, are at work in Japan searching the murky coastal waters for debris, infrastructure damage, and survivors.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Underwater robots equipped with imaging sensors that can see through murky waters are at work inspecting bridges, docks, and pipelines in port areas of the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged coastline of Japan.
The robots, between the size of a suitcase and football, join other robots inspecting the crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. On Monday, those robots reported that radiation levels are too high for human repair crews.
Port deployment That invitation came and her team, in partnership with Tetsuya Kimura of the Nagaoka University of Technology, deployed the robots Tuesday at the fishing port Minami-sanriku-choy to look for debris and other threats in the cloudy waters that could block passage of fishing boats, which need at least 15 feet of clearance before they can return to work.
On Wednesday, Murphy reported that the port was clear of obstructing debris, and that the robots "performed admirably."
"We were surprised at the lack of cars and other big objects underwater. The lower portions of the town is one rumbled mass of cars, piers, metal pilings, and such all twisted about, so we expected to see at least some of the same in the water," she wrote in a blog post from the field.
The team primarily encountered anchor stones and ropes used in the harbor and some smaller bits of debris. The lesson learned, Murphy notes, is a need for simulation software that predicts where debris goes in the wake of a tsunami or hurricane.
No bodies of victims were found, which Murphy said is bittersweet. Minami-sanriku-choy had a population of 20,000. An estimated 2,000 people are dead or missing following the disaster.
Similar to BP effort The robots in use are smaller versions of the types used during the BP oil spill. They include the suitcase-sized Seamor, which can spot objects of interest with sonar capabilities and Seabotix's SARbot, which can zero in on the objects.
Other equipment in the team's arsenal includes the football-sized AC-ROV robot and monitoring equipment for AEOS Inc. All of the robots have a tether to allow operators on the surface to control the vehicles in real-time and watch the sonar and video footage.
The team is now moving to Rikuzen-Takada to continue the search-and-rescue efforts. Murphy will update her blog as time permits.
Red Whittaker, a robotics expert at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, told me in March to expect robot deployments that help Japan recover from the earthquake and tsunami to last for weeks, months, and years.
"These are campaigns, not skirmishes, and typically new tools are brought to bear as the challenges arise and those challenges are very different over time," he said.