Double disaster: Two earthquakes in Kumamoto

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4 January 2017 | Natural catastrophes 2016

Double disaster: Two earthquakes in Kumamoto

In April 2016, the southwest of Japan was rocked by two strong earthquakes within the space of 48 hours.

Because of its position on the boundary of several tectonic plates, Japan is repeatedly subject to powerful earthquakes. In the south of the country, the Philippine plate pushes itself 4 centimetres under the Eurasian plate each year. On 14 April, the resulting rock stress triggered a series of quakes on the island of Kyushu close to the town of Kumamoto. The magnitude 7.0 mainshock early in the morning of 16 April was preceded by a magnitude 6.2 foreshock and smaller aftershocks. Further aftershocks followed. There were landslides and soil liquefaction in many places.

The quakes occurred on what are known as crustal faults, far away from the actual boundaries of the tectonic plates, at a shallow depth of ten kilometres. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), both quakes generated exceptionally high ground motion. The rupture of the main quake broke the surface in Kumamoto. Ground cracks with horizontal displacement of more than two metres were observed in places. The consequences: 69 dead, countless injured, 300,000 evacuated. Despite the strict building codes that have been in place since 1981, 8,000 houses collapsed in Kumamoto Prefecture and the surrounding towns, and more than 140,000 buildings were damaged, 24,000 of them severely. Several cultural heritage sites and infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, railway lines) were destroyed by the quake or by landslides. There were also industrial losses at production plants for cars, electronic components and pharmaceuticals, primarily because of a temporary interruption in the supply chain. Despite the fact that many industrial plants sustained only slight damage, production had to be shut down for longer periods, in some cases for weeks. The Kumamoto earthquake in Japan again demonstrated the complex nature of supply chains in our globalised economy.

Since the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the proportion of Japanese households insured against earthquakes has more than tripled – a trend that is reflected in the amount of insured losses in 2016. But the share of insured losses in Japan is still low in comparison with other industrialised countries. In terms of overall losses, the Kumamoto quake is the third costliest ever in Japan, after the Tohoku earthquake of 2011 and Kobe in 1995.

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