No. 9: Japan Earthquake

On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck northeast Japan and lasted about five minutes. The temblor, registered as the largest to hit Japan and as the fourth largest in the world since 1900, unleashed ocean waves that reached all the way to the United States. The Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami registered a death toll exceeding 15,000, and it’s uncertain what effects that radiation from the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors will have in the coming years. All this made the quake and tsunami among the most monitored online events of 2011.

Disaster details
Natural disasters trigger Web searches on the degree of devastation. People looked up individual Japanese cities, towns, and landmarks: Fukushima emerged early as a place of concern. Videos just hinted at the calamity of water and fire that swept away entire towns.

The 2004 Indian Ocean quake had been an appalling lesson in a tsunami’s catastrophic power. For hours after Japan’s earthquakes, searchers monitored the tsunami warnings issued throughout the Pacific. Many sought maps of the region to pinpoint not only the epicenter but also the waves that went out at 500 mph. Residents in coastal regions prepared for the real possibility of a tsunami coming to their shores. Japan’s disaster also triggered general preparedness concerns at home.

The quake also spurred research into past disasters in Haiti, Sumatra, Alaska, and Chile. As people discovered, much as the Chilean earthquake slightly shifted Earth’s axis, the Tohoku quake shortened the day by 1.8 microseconds.

Read more about Japan as earthquake country

Nuclear emergency
Online focus shifted quickly to recovery, relief, and the ongoing potential nuclear disaster. Concerns about its effect on the world at large trended high, as did questions about other power plants around the world. Japan’s own history with radiation exposure from World War II atomic bombs as well as other nuclear plant disasters resonated online.

As the Fukushima crisis wore on for weeks, people sought answers to questions like “what does radiation do to the body,” “thyroid,” “how to protect yourself from radiation,” “iodine tablets radiation,” “Germany reactors,” “Japan nuclear leak wind patterns,” “Geiger counters,” “California nuclear power plants on a map.” Concern about the food chain persisted, and set up a special page addressing such concerns.

Read about the heroic acts of Fukushima engineers

Rescue and donations
The impulse to give was immediate. In addition to prayers, which also became a Twitter trending term, questions on how to help through rescue efforts and donations emerged on day one. The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that donations lagged far behind those for Katrina and Haiti in the first seven days, although the unfolding storyline of nuclear disaster likely distracted people’s attention.

Also, unlike Haiti, Japan has a relatively strong independent infrastructure. Tellingly, concerns about the world economy pushed financial queries up after the quake, as market watchers tried to measure how the disaster would affect an already unstable global marketplace.

The disaster did bring belated recognition for one selfless act: Searches for Hurricane Katrina surfaced, as news got around on how much Japan had been a leading donor to that U.S. disaster.

Inevitably, such calamities trigger a search for meaning — in superstitions as well as science — as people try to grapple with why such disasters occur.  In addition to lookups for “Nostradamus predictions” and “apocalypse,” people looked into the supermoon phenomenon: On March 19, the moon made its closest sweep past Earth in 18 years. An astrologer had predicted on March 1 that lunar proximity would trigger storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami occurred two weeks before that supermoon.

A version of this article originally appeared on Y! Search blog.

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.