The earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit Japan 11 March were so huge that even weeks later it's hard for me to wrap my head around them. While people in Japan are living in shelters and worrying about radiation sickness, I think it's worth reminding folks of their plight with a little science.
At magnitude 9, the quake was the fifth largest in recorded history. Tectonic shifting pushed Honshu, the main island, 7.87 feet west (or 2.4 meters). Eight feet doesn't sound like much until you consider that Honshu is 800 miles (1300km) long.
It's freaky to think that the quake/tsunami combo was so powerful it changed the rotation of the earth and shortened the length of the day, even if only by a fraction.
On the human side, the numbers are just as scary. Residents of Sendai had just 8 to 10 minutes of warning before the tsunami struck, and the water went 6.2 miles (or 10km) inland. Think about that for a moment. If you had 8 minutes to grab your kids and whatever you value from your home and jump in your vehicle, would you have made it 6 miles inland in time?
There are 12,000 to 13,000 people dead. Another 12,000 to 17,000 missing. 530,000 homes destroyed. For comparison sake, 1,836 people died in Hurricane Katrina.
It is hard to comprehend a disaster of this scale.
* Thanks to google, I drew numbers from an article in Scientific American and from a South African blogger named Wicked Mike. And the Katrina ref is from Wikipedia.
** If you don't have complete disaster fatigue, you might consider helping through prayers or donations via the American Red Cross or Catholic Relief Services.