Saturday, May 19, 2012

Losing to Fate and the Weather

This last Golden Week, eight climbers died in the Japan Northern Alps. The weather during the holidays was very volatile even in the predominantly flat Kanto area, and except for a day or two when it seemed to be suddenly summer, overall it was pretty cold and gloomy. Some of the deceased climbers were described in the media as being "experienced", yet many or most were wearing only T-shirts and light windbreakers, with no gloves.

It's not charitable to say so, but to me that's gambling with Fate without sufficiently understanding the rules of the game.

I've written about this kind of thing before. It's always sad to hear these stories, and there seem to be more of them in the last few years. Perhaps that's simply because the graying of society is raising the average age of folks on the mountains.

Mountain weather is very changeable, particularly this early in the season, although I've seen some sudden and drastic changes even in mid-summer. It's always better to be over- than under-prepared, if you intend to descend the mountains alive.

I suspect that some of the people who were mentioned as having  experience in, for example, the Himalayas may have been taking the Japan Alps too lightly, believing them safe by comparison. I can understand the reluctance to carry a tent or heavy coat on what is planned to be a fairly easy trek, but a good down jacket, while bulky, doesn't weigh that much, and it could save your life. The same is true for warm gloves and a knit ski cap or the like, neither of which add that much weight or bulk. Even a couple of negligible-weight, super-compact "space"/survival blankets added to your rucksack or stuffed into a pocket "just in case" might well be the difference between dying or surviving.

I'd really like, for a change, to start hearing more stories about climbing groups whose "just in case" preparations enabled them to survive and return safely even when the unexpected struck.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thunderstorms with a Twist

Ibaraki and Tochigi experienced considerable damage from last year's Tohoku earthquake, including collapsed houses, but got much less exposure in the news than other prefectures did. The scale of the destruction and loss of life in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima was much greater, and the scenes of liquefaction in Chiba provided very dramatic video as well as cautionary tales about what disaster insurance would and would not cover.

The two northern Kanto prefectures are receiving plenty of attention now, unfortunately, because of the tornados that ripped through them. The damage was considerable, including the death of a boy whose house, foundation and all, was picked up and set down upside-down. That was in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, where as many as 200 homes had their roofs blown away. In Moka City and Mashiko and Motegi Towns in Tochigi, 300 or so homes were damaged. Broken utility poles, debris strewn wildly about, broken glass, and crushed cars have figured prominently in the news since, along with human interest stories with interviews of people in homes with no walls or roof, waiting for power to be restored. I saw one particularly poignant interview with a fellow whose house was half-demolished...he'd moved there not long before after losing his home in the Tohoku disaster. 

The storms caused hail damage in Mito, Ibaraaki, too. One video clip I watched described and showed the first examples I've seen of roof tiles broken not by falling, but by being hit by hailstones.

Other prefectures were not entirely spared by the storms accompanying the twisters: long-suffering Fukushima had 20 greenhouses blown away and four homes damaged "by gusts", a farmer was electrocuted by lightning while on his tractor in Toyama, and a family walking their dog were struck by lightning in Okegawa, Saitama. The mother and her 11-year-old daughter were hospitalized; the mother has since recovered consciousness but the daughter still has not.

I may have seen that lightning strike, since I was standing outside not too many kilometers north of Okegawa at the time, watching the sudden and very violent lightning storm taking place around that area in the middle distance, glad that the storm had mostly moved away from me. 

By the standards of countries where tornadoes are more common and  often more severe, these were relatively mild. The Meteorological Agency is saying that they were probably F2 on the Fujita Scale. Tornadoes are unusual in Japan, however, although they seem to have been becoming more frequent in recent years. In a quick search, I could only find records of 16 since 1881; half of them have hit since 1964, three of those since 2006. 

It's possible that there have been more: in the last few years some reports of sudden, violent "gusts" were blamed for damage that looked very much as if it had been caused by a tornado, and I've heard a lot of news reports describing such phenomena as "strong gusts appearing like tornadoes". I assume that  the media--and probably the Meteorological Agency--are reluctant to pronounce them tornadoes without clear evidence that they're not downbursts or sudden really violent gusts but not exactly tornadoes. That's the reason for the quotation marks above, since I'd bet that was a tornado in Fukushima, too.

Yesterday, the tornadoes in Tochigi and Ibaraki were being called by that rather tentative term. Today's news stories, after all of the amateur video clips of them had been repeatedly aired, were calling them tornadoes unequivocally. The victims have, I'm sure, no doubt what they were.