Visualizing the Quake II

Visualizing the Quake II

Update, Tuesday 1pm EST: The situation in Japan worsened dramatically on Tuesday, when a powerful explosion blew a 26-foot-wide hole in the side of reactor No. 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, a second explosion ruptured the inner containment building at reactor No. 2 — the most critically damaged of all the cores — sending a plume of radiation into the surrounding atmosphere some 800 times more intense than the recommended exposure limit. In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged the Japanese people "to react very calmly" while acknowledging that "this incidence is of great concern." The government has asked all citizens living within 30 kilometers of the Daiichi plant to remain indoors today to prevent unnecessary radiation exposure.

As Japanese engineers try frantically now to cool the crippled reactors, experts have begun to put this crisis into context. For now, the consensus seems to be that this disaster is 1) less catastrophic than Chernobyl, but 2) the worst the world has seen since Chernobyl. And though opinions across the media landscape vary wildly as to the effect this crisis will — or should — have on nuclear power as a green energy, what cannot be disputed is the psychological impact it is likely to have on the Japanese people. As Harvard Professor Matthew Bunn points out, nuclear fallout wreaks more devastation through ancillary trauma than through radiation sickness itself: "I would argue the biggest health impacts of Chernobyl, despite the substantial radiation doses that some people received, were the stress, depression, and alcoholism that followed," he writes. Fear of radiation, in other words, has real health consequences.

Another thing to keep in mind, notes Bunn, is that while several people may die or be sickened by the nuclear accident, those numbers will pale in comparison with the 10,000 or so feared dead after last week's earthquake and tsunami.

Keeping close tabs on the manifold crises as they unfold is Isao Matsunami, who lives in Nagoya. Today he has provided us with an updated Day 4 Flash Map, revealing the viable roads and thru-ways around the Fukushima plant, and the nation-at-large. Its twisting yellow lines, delineating sites of automobile traffic, provide a modicum of hope for a country rocked by too many crises at once.

Upload your own visualization of the earthquake, tsunami, and/or nuclear disaster. To get you started, we've proved some data sources at the bottom of this page.


In the three days since the ground convulsed in Japan, the country has mobilized a massive bi-directional rescue effort, moving victims out of the flattened and flooded areas, and moving supplies and disaster relief workers in. And though the risks of full nuclear meltdown are still uncertain, the government has spared no precautions: more than 180,000 people within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi plant have been evacuated since Friday.

Sadly, this natural disaster, like all others, confronts us anew with the ironies of infrastructure: at a time when society most need open roads and power lines, running water and communications links, those very lifelines are crippled. The irony compounds even further when you consider that assessing and repairing damaged infrastructure usually requires some form of infrastructure that's intact. It's tough to rebuild a highway if you can't get cement trucks on location. It's even tough to know, sometimes, which roadways are damaged when phone lines are down and rolling blackouts hamper communications.

But the paradoxes of infrastructure-in-times-of-disaster may have met their partial match in technologies that allow us to observe, assess, and communicate from afar. By now you've likely seen the stunning "before and after" satellite images, taken by Geoeye, showing various sites in Japan prior to- and post-tsunami. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have also transformed the landscape of disaster relief, as has the old-fashioned search engine: At last count, Google's Person Finder has some 161,000 records for the 2011 Japan quake.

With this visualization, designer Isao Matsunami illustrates another way of capitalizing on the power of remote-sensing and the web — by proxy. Instead of attempting to directly map the extent of roadway damage in Japan, Matsunami has struck upon a brilliant substitute: the vehicles moving on those streets.

To create this visualization, he collected data from Hondas equipped with "InterNavi," GPS, and data transition systems — technologies that report how fast the car is moving and along which route. Layering that data atop a Google Earth map of Japan, he has created a striking visual record of mobility on the island, and a brilliant way of remotely searching for navigable roads.

You can explore Matsunami's interactive Flash maps, illustrating Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 after the disaster. On those maps he has provided helpful (if haunting) markers: the quake epicenter, Minamisanriku (where 9,500 people are currently missing), Nuclear Plant Fukushima No. 1 (Unit 1,2,3 partial meltdown), Nuclear Plant Onagawa (under control), Sendai Airport (under seawater).

Also clear from these maps is the sparsity of yellow lines along the coastal areas. In Matsunami's words, "it is inexpressible sorrow to see there is no indication in the seashore areas long Japan's most beautiful coastline."

We would like to thank Matsunami for his submission, and we encourage you all — our visualizing community — to contribute your own renderings. In case you missed our original posting, we have an open call for visualizations that analyze, illuminate, and provide insight into this developing catastrophe. To get you started, we've provided the following data sources, which we will be updating as more information becomes available. As Matsunami has shown, however, you needn't be confined to the USGS or NOAA. Data from Honda GPS units is equally valid — and far more clever.


To get you started, we've provided the following sources:

USGS Earthquake Data

See also:

USGS Earthquake Lists & Maps for US and World data on: Deadliest Earthquakes, Largest Earthquakes, Earthquake Frequency, and more.

NOAA Tsunami Data

Realtime Data

  • Latest event message for North America's West and East Coasts, and US Gulf of Mexico Coasts (from WC/ATWC)
  • Latest event messages for Hawaii, all U.S. interests in the Pacific outside the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center area of responsibility, most countries in the Pacific and around its rim. Includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. (from PTWC)
  • Realtime and Retrospective data from DART Tsunami Buoy Data - from NOAA

See also:

Add a Comment

Login or register to post comments