“Because the westerly winds that determine the boundary between cold and warm fronts have been meandering to the south of the Japanese archipelago, it’s predicted that this will continue to enable cold continental air masses to flow over Japan. We forecast that movements of the atmosphere around the Arctic will further exacerbate the chill.”
Norihisa Fujikawa, an official at the government’s Metrological Agency, delivers this warning in the February issue of Sapio.
The heaviest snowfall ever recorded in the Tokyo area—46 centimeters (18 inches)—fell in February 1883. An article in the Feb 9, 1883 issue of the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (the forerunner of the Mainichi) reported, “Today, neither horse-drawn streetcars, nor horse carriages nor jinrikishas can be seen on the streets.”
Journalist Minoru Watanabe, who specializes in coverage of disasters and crisis management, notes that the more advanced and complex functions large cities assume, the greater the risk of problems in the event of heavy snowfalls.
“When 8 cm fell on Tokyo a year ago, the city practically descended into panic,” Watanabe is quoted as saying. “A heavy snowfall would paralyze most of the city’s functions and leave the transport network in tatters. The railway switchers would fail to function and signal cables snap. The schedules of the subway lines that share their tracks with regular commuter trains would be thrown into disarray. Auto traffic would come to a standstill.”
A member of the Tottori prefectural government recalls when some 1,000 vehicles were stranded due to a truck accident on National Highway No. 9 on New Year’s Day in 2011, and the Self Defense Force had to be mobilized to provide stranded drivers with food, fuel and blankets. Masatoshi Yoshino, professor emeritus at Tsukuba University, believes Tokyo could very well incur a similar calamity.
“The national and metropolitan government need to run detailed simulations for such matters as snow removal, providing fuel to stranded vehicles, assigning detour routes and so on,” Yoshino advises.
According a staff member of the metropolitan government’s construction bureau, presently the system for dealing with snow is set up with Tokyo segmented into 11 sectors. These offices issue requests to the private sector when snow removal is needed. But neither the government nor private companies own so much as a single dedicated snow removal vehicle, so the task is entrusted to bulldozer operators at construction companies.
Sapio points out that the biggest problems caused by a heavy snowfall would be the city’s water and electricity. If the temperature drops below minus 4 degrees Celsius for several hours, water in the pipes freezes and expands, causing pipes to rupture. Last winter, Tokyo reported some 200 such cases, and the figure in 2011 was about 550 cases. Ominously, in both of these cases the temperature remained higher than minus 4 degrees.
The capital’s electric grid is the source of another potential crisis. The heavy snow last January caused power outages of nearly 12 hours in some parts of Funabashi and Ishihara cities in Chiba prefecture.
According to Watanabe, the cause of the outage was the collapse of steel towers supporting power transmission lines caused by heavy snowfalls. In the affected areas, water pumps failed to operate, along with elevators in apartments, air conditioners and electric space heaters. “This was an extremely dangerous situation for elderly persons who live alone,” he said.
In the event a major snowfall appears imminent, Sapio advises these precautions: avoid leaving home to the greatest degree possible; stock up on sufficient supplies of foods; and keep cooking and heating devices on hand that can be utilized even when no electricity is available.