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Technology and the Japan Disaster

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Events, Technology
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As a devoted fan of computers, computer science, robots, and basically everything about technology, I pretty much believe science can do anything. We may not have flying cars or television beamed right into your head—yet—but technology and innovation can eventually, somehow, solve everything.

Technology failed Japan this week, however. Its state-of-the art technology and infrastructure, though undoubtedly life-saving, wasn’t enough to prevent the death toll from climbing to an expected 10,000 people.

Japan has some of the most sophisticated earthquake and tsunami warning systems—and some of the strictest building codes—in the world. Spurred to action after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed over 6,000 people, the Japanese government invested billions of dollars in technology and infrastructure to protect against future—and assured, in Japan—quakes.

Japan’s warning systems and technologies worked as intended and were effective during this disaster, but technology just wasn’t enough. The investments they made have been fairly comprehensive, though, including the following disaster responses:

  • Earthquake warnings. Earthquakes don’t give a lot of warning, of course. But the earthquake warning system in Japan—which notifies officials and the public via phone messaging as well as traditional media—can give a few seconds’ notice before a quake hits. Not much, but enough to enable transit workers to shut down trains and some people to take cover.
  • Tsunami warnings. The billion-dollar tsunami warning system uses a network of over a thousand GPS-based sensors and can give people several minutes to evacuate before waves start hitting.
  • Infrastructure. Japan’s strict building codes, long among the most stringent in the world, meant that the buildings sway instead of crumble during the quake.  Seawalls, derided as eyesores by some, protect the coast from Tsunami waves.
  • The Internet. It’s still up and running in Japan. Access to information (and to loved ones) is paramount during a disaster, and Japan’s undersea cables have remained mostly intact so far, allowing much-needed communication and response.

Technology can do a lot for us. It saved lives in Japan, and in the future it will surely save more. But it’s just not enough. Someday, advanced technologies will be more effective in disasters like this one, but in the meantime all we can do is try to help.

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