The Impact of the March 2011 Earthquake in Northeast Japan Today

The Impact of the March 2011 Earthquake in Northeast Japan Today


Over the summer, Professor David Edgington conducted research on the impact of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident on local communities in Northeast Japan.


Tell me about your research trip to Fukushima.

I spent some of June this year talking with local politicians, mayors, councillors, local officials, journalists, academics and concerned residents in Fukushima prefecture where the nuclear plant accident occurred in March 2011. I also learned to use a dosimeter to measure airborne readings of radiation.

Even though the nuclear power plant accident happened more than three years ago, many residents are still concerned about radiation levels. About 70,000 people were evacuated from the area immediately around the stricken nuclear power plant. They now live in temporary housing, most in barrack-type shelters, waiting to return some day in the future.

How close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant did you go?

There is a strict 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the plant, which is a no-go zone and this is enforced by the local police. The nearest I came to this was when I travelled en route from Fukushima City to a small coastal port called Soma City. I passed by a series of mountain villages where residents were only allowed to visit their houses during the day in order to check for vandalism and wild animals. The radiation levels there are still too high to allow overnight stays. Soma City on the coast is one of the five municipalities where I conduct field research up and down the Tohoku coastline examining the pace of recovery after the 3.11 tsunami. Just to the south there is another rural municipality called Minami Soma. This is closer to the Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant and most of it is still off limits due to high radiation levels, even though a decontamination program is in full-swing.

How is the decontamination program going?

On my first day in Fukushima city, which is about 50 kilometers inland from the coast, I visited the city hall where there is a ground floor information corner for residents on the decontamination program. There were detailed maps of which districts had been already finished and the progress made over the last three years or so. Basically, the objective is to decrease the air-borne radiation level to under one millisievert per hour, which is the standard set by the national government for the whole of Fukushima prefecture. By careful power-washing of the roofs and walls of each house and building, plus removal of top soil and leaves in gardens and farms, the city council hopes to reduce radiation levels by about half to two-thirds. There is a small army of construction workers spread throughout the city and at other towns in the prefecture. At the same time, the half life phenomenon of certain radiation products, such as cesium, means the radiation levels will also decline naturally. But the council is already behind schedule in decontamination because of the heavy snow fall last winter, but it plans to finish the program in one to two more years.

Removal of so much soil must mount up rapidly. Where does the city store the contaminated soil?

That’s a real problem. The soil is put in large black plastic bags and taken to various temporary sites and stored safely with the highest radiation-count bags in the middle of the pile. Discussions are still on-going as to where to finally store these bags. The only solution seems to be to dig a deep hole, probably on land inside the exclusion zone at the coast. But none of the villages there have given their permission. It’s not surprising!


Your research focuses on the geography of radiation contamination and decontamination. What do you mean by this?

I knew nothing about nuclear radiation before 2011. The only recorded incidence of a nuclear power plant explosion is of course Chernobyl in the Ukraine, back in 1986. In that case, a much larger area was evacuated and no decontamination work was carried out. In Fukushima, apart from the 20 kilometer evacuation zone, the decision was taken by the national government to keep people at home and for children to continue going to school and so on. As a result, people have to cope with the legacy of low-level radiation, as well as the threat of further accidents at the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant until it is finally decommissioned in about another 30-40 years.

The radiation from the plant did not disseminate in a strictly geographical pattern. Because of the effects of rain and wind in the days following the explosion, there are now so many `hot-spots’ of relatively high radiation that is unsafe, especially for young children. Some of these are on city roads in Fukushima, some are in the parks close to schools, some are in the surrounding mountains where contaminated water flows into farmers rice paddy fields. There doesn’t seem to be an effective way of monitoring all of the hot-spots, which appear to be in a geographically random pattern. This is the problem of the geography of contamination and decontamination.

Wow! How do you think the local people are coping in this situation?

It’s certainly an unusual state of affairs. Fukushima prefecture is a large area with many different towns, cities and rural communities, so I heard a variety of responses to that question. Some families are making plans to leave while others say they have nowhere else to go to. Mothers are worried about hot-spots and young children and the possibility of them getting thyroid cancer. I noticed a lot of anger against the national government as well as the TEPCO electric power company that runs the nuclear power plant, and unfortunately that anger seems to have spilled over to the local officials in city hall that I met, who are tasked with doing a very difficult job. I hope to do another round of field-work in Japan next summer and to keep in contact with the people that I met and conduct research on the progress made in decontamination.



2013-2014 Building Renovations

During the summer of 2013, UBC initiated a large renovations project to address the long standing drainage issues affecting the Geography Building, to perform seismic upgrades in the crawlspace to improve the seismic integrity of the building, to make building envelope repairs and to paint the exterior of the building. This project will be completed by the end of August 2014.

The grand opening of the Biogeomorphology Experimental Laboratory in Ponderosa Commons in February 2014 meant that the physical geographers now have a large world-class laboratory. All physical geography research labs and certain storage spaces were relocated there, freeing up space in the Geography building. The department took this opportunity to evaluate other poorly-used spaces in light of departmental needs and embarked on renovations to four areas. The objectives were to renovate existing labs, improve social space and accommodate research space requirements. In addition to these projects, the GIC (Geographic Information Centre) underwent structural upgrades and renovations to accommodate the air photo collection as well as improve student study space; and the courtyard was significantly improved as a result of a public realm initiative. All in all it’s been a busy year with lots to show for it!

Rm 112 – Geographic Information Centre
In 2012, it was announced that the GIC would receive nearly 2.3 million aerial photographs depicting BC’s geographical history from the Provincial Air Photo Warehouse that closed in April 2012. To ensure public access to these photos, the GIC was renovated to accommodate the new photo collection. The current renovations also improve current student study spaces.

Rm 140 – Ross Mackay Graduate Lounge
Room 140 used to be four separate rooms—three for storage and one interior office which was rarely used. With the reorganization of storage material, walls were torn down, glass walls and wooden benches put in, creating one large and comfortable common space for graduate students. There was a department-wide competition for the naming of the room which was won by Dr. Graeme Wynn for “Ross Mackay Graduate Lounge” after the noted Canadian Geographer, a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and Willet G. Miller Medal Awardee, John Ross Mackay.

Rm 126 – Urban Studies Commons
Previously a physical geography laboratory, Room 126 has been redesigned to meet the needs of the Urban Studies program. The Urban Studies Commons is a multifunctional space that centralizes three related initiatives.  The Commons houses the Editorial Offices of Urban Geography, an international refereed journal; hosts meetings of the UBC Urban Studies Coordinating Committee and urban-oriented seminars and workshops; and provides workspace for graduate students specializing in urban research projects.


Rm 229 – Seminar Room
Room 229 was previously a laboratory for the introductory GEOB courses, 102 and 103. With the changes in pedagogy during the last few years, a lab space was no longer needed. This opportunity allowed the department to completely redesign the former lab space as a nicer, larger, interactive seminar space for the colloquia and smaller seminar classes with a brand new A/V system.


The new courtyard is a part of a larger campus beautifying program by UBC Planning. It will now feature more green spaces, a greater diversity in flora, improved lighting and more public seating than the previous design of the courtyard. By removing the dense shrubs that once surrounded the pathway to the courtyard, we are actively opening up the space to welcome more visitors, more access, and a sense of greater integration with the rest of the public spaces on UBC. There are also planters and a harvest table to support the GSA’s GeoGarden. The new design is dedicated to supporting the mental and physical health of students, staff, and faculty, as well as instilling a sense of pride and place for the Department of Geography.

Rm 227 – Coffee Room
With the coffee room servicing faculty, staff and graduate students, this is an important social space that is well used. Last year we had bought new furniture and this year the room was renovated to incorporate a new counter, new cupboards, new sink, new floor and new appliances (including a dishwasher). We hope this will continue to be a comfortable gathering space for all.

Landscaping on West Mall and the north side of the building
To improve drainage and renew the façade of this historic building, UBC proposed a new design to transform the existing vegetation and landscape. This meant the removal of all the rhododendron bushes to be replaced with shrubs and a gentle grassy slope. New pear trees have been planted and the new landscape makes this refreshed area brighter, tidier, and more welcoming.


New Student Services Coordinator


We are very excited to welcome Stefanie Ickert, the new Student Services Coordinator, to our department! Stefanie graduated with an MA in History from UBC in 2013. She will be joining the main office and assisting with the administration of the graduate program as well as facets of the undergraduate program.

Trevor Barnes, Fellow of British Academy


Congratulations to Professor Trevor Barnes for having been elected a Fellow of the British Academy! This acknowledges an innovative, influential, and extremely productive career and also the major role he’s played in the British academic assessment system.

Environment and Sustainability

The Environment and Sustainability Program offers an integrated understanding of physical, ecological, economic, social, cultural and political systems, as they shape the world in which we live and influence the future of life on our planet.

Human Geography

The Human Geography Program covers a wide set of sub-disciplines that share in common the study of the human use and experience of the world. It covers such broad territory as the relations between nature and society, place and human identity, and the spatial basis of economies and societies.

Geographical Sciences

The Geographical Sciences Program is the study of the fundamental interactions between life and Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. Geographical Sciences is a discipline that inhabits the intellectual territory between the more traditional disciplines of the natural sciences.

Caroline Grego wins CSN-RÉC Prize


Congratulations to MA student Caroline Grego for winning the MA-level Major Research Paper Prize from CSN-RÉC (Réseau d’études canadiennes)!

The winning paper is titled, “Imagining a Community-Oriented ‘National Park Nature: Conflict, Management, and Conservation in the Proposed South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen National Park Reserve.” According to the congratulatory message from the CSN-RÉC, “The adjudicating committee members agreed that Grego’s thesis represents a significant contribution to the field of Canadian Studies. Starting from a personal narrative reflecting on her relationship with the environment of the Okanagan Valley and her native South Carolina and moving into a nuanced discussion of the politics surrounding the proposed South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen National Park Reserve, Grego’s thesis combines an impressive theoretical grounding in concepts of nature and wilderness, a thorough exploration of the history of the region, and a balanced acknowledgement of the plurality of voices in this debate. We enjoyed reading this thesis a great deal and wish to congratulate Caroline on a fine piece of work.”

Lawrence Bird at WEST 2014


Congratulations to MSc student Lawrence Bird for having been awarded the poster prize for his poster on ‘Thermal regime of a large proglacial lake fed by a calving glacier’ at WEST (Water and Environment Student Talks) 2014! The winning poster documented the thermal regime of a large proglacial lake formed by the retreat of Bridge Glacier as a basis for understanding implications for downstream river temperatures.

Tom Koch at the KMA

news_koch-Korea-at expo

In June, UBC Geography adjunct professor Tom Koch delivered a plenary lecture at the 32nd Annual Korean Medical Association meetings in Seoul, Korea. The subject–“Age, Aging, and Allocation: The failure of success”–built upon his work on aging and the elderly to consider citizen longevity in the postmodern era. In the 1990’s he published the first works on eldercare from the perspective of the family caregiver, work that sparked a subfield in gerontology. His 1990 Mirrored Lives was a close, detailed study of the geographic and social effects of fragile age. In addition, the KMA hosts included translators who are translating Prof. Koch’s latest book, Thieves of Virtue, into a Korean language edition.