A devastating earthquake in central Japan, which could strike at any time, would kill about 5,900 people, according to a new local government estimate, but it is far too low analysts said Thursday.
The government of Shizuoka prefecture, 150 kilometers west of Tokyo, said it based its estimate, published on its homepage on Wednesday, on the assumption the quake’s intensity would be 8.0 on the Richter scale.
An earthquake of that intensity has 15.8 times as much energy as the 1995 killer quake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale that struck the port city of Kobe, western Japan, claiming 6,432 lives, according to the Meteorological Agency.
The death-toll estimate also assumes a quake striking around 5:00 a.m. and that no prior warning is given. Another 19,000 would probably be seriously injured, the regional government said.
Shizuoka lies to the north of where most seismologists believe Japan’s next major quake will occur, under the Pacific seabed in Suruga Bay, but a quake that powerful would cause widespread damage throughout Japan’s Tokai region, which has a population of over 24 million.
If the authorities are able to give prior warning, the death-toll is estimated to be only around 1,500, it said.
“We might be able to know the quake in advance as there was uplift (of tectonic plates) a few days prior to the 1944 quake in the same area,” said Kunio Ozawa, the prefecture’s disaster prevention intelligence office.
The estimate has been raised from the Shizuoka government’s last one made in 1993 — which set the death toll at only 1,500 to 2,600, with 2,600 to 9,300 seriously injured — to reflect the lessons learned from Kobe, Ozawa said.
The ensuing tsunami, or tidal wave, would completely destroy 2,200 buildings and directly cause 220 deaths, according to the new estimate.
Any accidents involving Shinkansen (bullet train) services as a result of the quake, would raise the number of the dead and the injured by several hundred per train since each train carries about 800 passengers.
Peter Hadfield, a qualified geologist and author of Sixty Seconds that will Change the World, a widely respected investigation into the likely effects of a major quake near Tokyo, expressed disbelief at such a low figure. “I would say 5,000 or so is a huge underestimate,” he said.
“If there’s no warning — you’d have a tsunami for a start and the coastline would be swamped. I didn’t estimate the number of dead myself, but my estimate was that half a million houses would be destroyed, and you don’t get half a million houses being destroyed and only 5,000 people being killed.”
He was equally dismissive of the Shizuoka government’s hopes to be able to issue a warning.
“There has never been a successful prediction of an earthquake in Japan,” he pointed out.
“They are looking for that uplift. The problem is there’s all sorts of movements going on down there they just can’t explain because their database is so poor and they don’t have the experience, so I don’t think it’s very likely.”
Yoshimitsu Okada an official at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, agreed the local government might be underestimating the potential death toll.
“We think the death toll could be double (Shizuoka’s estimate), depending on the strength of the wind which will determine the spread of fires,” he said, adding it was difficult to project casualties in Shinkansen trains because there has never been a major bullet train accident.
The 1923 Tokyo quake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale killed an estimated 140,000 people, with 60,000 dead in the capital alone. Fire accounted for about 50,000 fatalities as almost half a million closely-packed wooden houses were burnt down.