Anticipating the World’s Most Expensive Natural Disaster

The next major Tokyo earthquake will be the most expensive natural disaster ever.

Japan stands alone among all modern, large, and affluent economies in facing an unpredictable but inevitable disaster. Unlike the United States, France, or Russia, the country lives with the terrible certainty that its capital, the world’s largest megacity, will eventually be hit by a strong earthquake that will amount to the most expensive disaster in history.

It's a matter of when, not if.

This is the most sobering but incontrovertible starting point: When, not if. That is precisely why Japanese scientists and disaster experts have been developing realistic scenarios anticipating the extent and the consequence of such a disaster.

Thinking and writing about such matters is unsettling, but we have learned two great lessons from many modern disasters: 1) our response to them is always initially more chaotic and less effective than envisaged in model scenarios; but 2) a higher degree of preparedness can make a substantial difference, both in avoided death and injury and in property damage.


By 2035, Japan will have more people older than 70 years (about 29 million) than people in the prime of their lives, between 20 to 44 years of age. How would such a society cope with the devastation of its capital, largest city, and center of economic, cultural, and educational life? These are most uncomfortable, indeed terrifying, thoughts, but they remind us how fragile are the achievements of modern civilization and how uncertain are the fortunes of nations—particularly in places where nature repeatedly thwarts our designs.

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