Feature

The geologist who predicted Japan’s earthquake

Masanobu Shishikura's studies in the emerging field of paleoseismology had convinced him that every 450 to 800 years, colliding plates produced tsunami waves around Japan’s Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

Masanobu Shishikura saw the earthquake coming, said Peter Landers in The Wall Street Journal. The Japanese geologist, 41, would’ve preferred to be wrong. But on March 11, when the bookshelves and televisions in his office came crashing down around him, he tragically wasn’t. “It was the phenomenon just as I envisioned it,” he says of the 9.0 quake and the tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeastern coast.

Shishikura’s studies in the emerging field of paleoseismology had convinced him that every 450 to 800 years, colliding plates produced tsunami waves around Japan’s Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and that the possibility of such a disaster happening “in the near future” was very high. He even had an appointment scheduled for March 23 to explain his research to officials in Fukushima. “It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t time,” he says.

Had he given his warning, Shishikura believes, many of the tsunami’s victims might have been saved. “It appears to be almost completely unknown among the general public that in the past great tsunamis have inundated areas as far as 3 to 4 kilometers inland as the result of earthquakes exceeding magnitude 8,” he wrote last year. Shishikura now believes it’s never too early to sound the alarm. “We had better be on the lookout,” he says.

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