Tectonic plates are responsible for the world as we know it. Without this geological movement of the Earth’s crust, you could kiss the Atlantic Ocean goodbye, and we would be able to walk from North America to Africa. Tectonic plate movements are also responsible for the tragedy that struck Japan earlier this month. The shifting of the Earth’s crust is precisely what caused the 9.0-magnitude earthquake — and the ensuing tsunami — to shake the world.

Death tolls in Japan continue to rise, as the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in modern day history continues to escalate. The most recent estimates place the number of missing or dead at more than 25,000 — with more than 9,500 confirmed dead and 16,000 people still missing, according to a March 23 New York Times article. This carnage can’t be summed up by a few numbers, and the horror of earthquake is something that most of us will never know.

I’m extremely grateful that my family members in Japan were fortunate enough to escape the disaster with minimal anxiety. But despite their personal safety, their minds can’t be at ease yet. They’re waiting to hear news on friends and loved ones who may have been in the afflicted area.

The question of what’s next for Japan is ever present in the minds of the Japanese and those who have watched the story unfold in the news and on the Internet. Currently, the afflicted nation is facing contaminated food and water supplies, nuclear power plant failures and massive rubble clean ups that threaten the health and safety of the Japanese.

The food and water contamination goes hand in hand with the nuclear power plant failures. The failure of the plants comes from the failure of the water pumps that are used to cool the nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors reach extremely high temperatures during the fission process and therefore need to be cooled constantly to lower the risk of a meltdown situation. However, once the reactors reach critical temperatures, radioactivity becomes a major health risk. This radioactivity can cause harm to people as well as contaminate food and water supplies.

This is what the Japanese government is facing. Efforts are being made right now to cool the reactors to a manageable temperature, but if those efforts fail, burying the nuclear power plants may be the only option. Covering the plants with sand and concrete would be the Band-Aid approach to the problem, but it may also be the only viable option. Even after burying the plants, the radioactivity could still contaminate local groundwater supplies and would most likely result in the relocation of thousands of Japanese citizens who live near the plants.

The disaster in Japan was completely unavoidable. There’s no way to stop an earthquake from coming in the same way that there’s no way to stop the Earth from spinning. And the cleanup — which is estimated to cost $248 billion — also comes with the territory. But Japan’s earthquake precautions have made it “the best prepared country in the world,” according to MIT geophysicist Stephane Rondenay. Japan’s forewarning system — which includes more than 1,000 seismographs around the country — alerted the citizens of the earthquake 80 seconds before it actually hit. This warning system — in combination with building designs that are meant to withstand the shock of earthquakes — gave many the opportunity to seek safety and minimized the impact of the quake.

If the quake had hit an underdeveloped nation, the world would be looking at a situation even more devastating than the Haiti earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians. Bear in mind that Haiti was hit by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which — according to the Richter Scale — has about 1,000 times less energy than the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan. It’s almost unimaginable to think of how many lives were saved by the preparations that were put in place by the Japanese. This preparation is something that should be commended as well as duplicated.

The United States has literally built earthquake preparation into its infrastructure. The addition of rebar to concrete block structures is just one example of how this is done. Underdeveloped countries in seismically active zones need safer building designs and disaster action plans, which are something more developed nations can help with. Such movements have the potential to save countless lives and should be seriously looked into by relief organizations.

All the preparation in the world didn’t change the fact that many Japanese citizens lost their lives during and after the earthquake. Relief efforts are underway, and even though you’re probably a poor college student like we all are, I encourage everyone to donate to those efforts. Even if you can only spare a few bucks, you’ll rack up some serious karma points.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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