Japanese researchers may have found a way to immediately gauge the severity of earthquakes and other natural disasters by viewing sudden drops in electricity usage.
A system to track such data is in the works, and might be operational in about two years.
Study of such a system was prompted after researchers noted a correlation between low energy consumption and areas worst affected by the magnitude-7.2 temblor that struck Kobe in 1995, said Yasunari Hata, one of the principle researchers from Kobe’s Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution.
Local electric utility records show that in one district where about 32 percent of buildings were destroyed by the quake and subsequent fires, electricity usage suddenly dropped by 31 percent from normal levels, he said.
Similarly, when torrential rains hit the Tokai region in 2000, the city of Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture — which saw about 13 percent of its district flooded — recorded a 15 percent drop in electricity consumption.
“Conceptually, it’s quite simple,” Hata said. “We know how much electricity is regularly consumed at various hours in the day. If consumption suddenly falls following a disaster, its like a red flag alerting us to likely damage.”
Swift damage assessments following major earthquakes are particularly crucial to Japan — one of the world’s most quake-prone countries, sitting atop four tectonic plates.
Not immediately knowing the extent of damage was partially responsible for the government’s much-criticized tardy response to the Kobe earthquake, which resulted in the loss of 6,400 lives.
Researchers say that by feeding data from electricity grids into the system, areas where usage suddenly drops could be identified and correlated with data from Japan’s network of seismic-motion sensors, the most sophisticated in the world.
“Ultimately, the idea is to link up directly with local electricity companies to receive their consumption data in real time,” Hata said. “That would allow almost immediate damage assessments.”
Details, including where and how the system will be rolled out, are still being discussed with power companies and the government. But the Cabinet has already given conditional approval to allow the team to access electric company data in the event of an emergency.
One limit of the system, however, is that in a complete blackout, there would be no data to analyze and officials would also be in the dark, Hata said.
Just 40 percent of earthquake-resistant piers designated for construction at 336 locations after the 1995 quake in Kobe had been built by the end of March, well behind the transport ministry’s target.
According to a Board of Audit of Japan study, quays were constructed at 140 locations to allow for marine transportation in the event of an earthquake, and are currently being built at a rate of only two to three places per year.
The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry had planned to complete the construction project by 2010.
Among the locations waiting for piers are Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, where a series of powerful quakes hit this year.
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