WINTER WEATHER, HEAVY SNOW, AVALANCHES AND SNOW COUNTRY IN JAPAN

WINTER WEATHER IN JAPAN

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Japan’s normal winter pattern is to have a high pressure system in the west, and a low pressure system in the east. Typically cold northwest winds blow in from the Asian continent over the Sea of Japan, producing snow clouds as they meet the warm water of the Tsushima current, and bring heavy snowfall along the Sea of Japan. Sometimes violent lightning occurs in Japan in the winter.

Japan experienced an unusually cold winter and high snowfalls in 2005-2006. The unseasonably frigid temperatures were attributed to El Nina, which disrupted Japan’s normal westerly wind patterns, strengthening the southerly flow of cold air.

Japan experienced an unusually warm winter in 2006-2007. Golf courses welcomed the change while other places didn’t. Some winter festivals had to truck in snow. Some ski resorts filed for bankruptcy. The unseasonably mild temperatures were attributed to El Nino, which produced warm temperatures near the equator that disrupted Japan’s normal winter pattern of a high pressure system in the west, and low pressure system in the east, blocking the southerly flow of cold air and allowing warm air to come in from the south.

Websites and Resources

Links in this Website: LAND AND GEOGRAPHY OF JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLIMATE AND WEATHER IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; STORMS, FLOODS AND SNOW IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TYPHOONS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TYPHOONS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; NATURAL RESOURCES AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Good Websites and Sources on Climate and Weather: Good Photos of the Seasons at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Land and Weather Chapter stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp Japan Meteorological Agency Japan Meteorological Agency ; Weather Underground wunderground.com/global/JP ; Weather Channel Weather Channel ;World Climate World Climate ; Accuweather Accuweather ; Climate Data climatetemp.info/japan ;Wikipedia article on Geography of Japan Wikipedia ;

Good Websites and Sources of Storms and Floods: Weather Warnings from Japan Meteorological Agency jma.go.jp/en/warn ; Marine Warnings from Japan Meteorological Agency jma.go.jp/en/seawarn ; Wikipedia article on Snow Country in Japan Wikipedia ; Landslide Distribution Map bosai.go.jp/en ; BBC Picture Gallery of Flood in Japan news.bbc.co.uk ; Academic Paper of Flood Maps in Japan internationalfloodnetwork.org ; Tornados in Japan Survey by the American Meteorological Society ams.allenpress.com ; BBC report on 2006 Tornado bbc.co.uk

Typhoons: Typhoon and Hurricane Basics aoml.noaa.gov ; Data and Images from Pacific Typhoons eorc.jaxa.jp/ADEOS Typhoon and Hurricane Satellite Images and Photos fotosearch.com ; Video from Nasty Typhoon in Taiwan YouTube ; Typhoon Video YouTube ; Central Pacific Hurricane Center at the National Weather Service prh.noaa.gov ; Wikipedia article on Tropical Cyclones Wikipedia ; National Hurricane Center at the National Weather Service nhc.noaa.gov ; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Images of Typhoons jpl.nasa.gov/images ;

Typhoons in Japan : Typhoon and Tropical Cyclone Information from the Japan Meteorological Agency Japan Meteorological Agency ; Video of Typhoon Surfing in Japan YouTube ; Brochure on Typhoons in Japan pdf file rms.com/Publications ; Good Japan Times article on Typhoons in Japan search.japantimes.co.jp ; Digital Typhoon Information from the and United States Navy agora.ex.nii.ac.jp/digital-typhoon ; Ise-Wan Typhoon Wikipedia article on the 1959 Ise-wan Typhoon (Typhoon Vera) wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhoon_Vera ; U.S. Navy Report on the 1959 Ise-wan Typhoon pdf file usno.navy.mil and usno.navy.mil ; Lessons from the Isewan Typhoon pdf file katrina.lsu.edu/downloads/Typhoon_Isewan

Snow County in Japan

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heavy snow in 2005
In winter, winds and precipitation coming from the west across the Sea of Japan often brings heavy snows to northwest Honshu.

Snow country refers to an area between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps. It is one of the snowiest regions in the world, with snow levels measured in meters rather than centimeters or inches. Precipitation-laden clouds coming in from the Sea of Japan bang up against the mountains and drop huge loads of snow. The town of Tsunan, which lies in the heart of snow country, was buried under seven meters of snow in 1945. Until these areas were regularly plowed starting in the 1960s, some places were virtually cut off from the rest of the world until the snow disappeared.

People in Snow Country use plow-like shovels which they push with two hands to remove snow from driveways, walkways and roofs. A resident in Tsunan told the New York Times, “It’s a never-ending job!...After you’ve cleared the snow, the place is covered with snow again two days later. “

Cars and houses are buried under snow. Towns became lumpy white blankets. Streets that are plowed are lined by walls of snow. Some people have to climb out of second-story widows onto three-meter-high walls of snow just to get out their house. Kids play jump rope by jumping over power lines.

Snow has to be cleared from roofs to keep them from collapsing. Typically the man of the house climbs a ladder to the roof to clear the snow while his wife waits below. These days many of the people who live in rural areas with lots of snow are people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have gotten hurt or even died from falling off roofs or being knocked out or buried under falling snow. People have also died when heavy snow on roofs caused entire buildings to collapse.

Some places with heavy snowfalls have sprinklers in the middle of the streets and electrical pumps that use mildly warm underground water to melt the snow. Some streets, especially those around the train stations, are heated. Large chunks of local budgets are spent on snow removal.

Heavy Snow in Japan

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Heavy snowfall in late 2005 and early 2006 resulted in more than 60 deaths and 1,178 injuries. Places in Niigata and Nagano received more than 80 centimeters a day. Tsunan lay under four meters of snow in early January. Many of those who died where elderly people who fell while shoveling snow off the roofs of their houses.

Snowfall amounts were so high in 2006 that ski resorts and onsens lost customers because of fears by customers over avalanches, Some places received so much snow that the military was called in to help remove it. By the time winter was nearing its end some places had accumulated more that six meters of snow.

The record snows were accompanied by the coldest temperatures since the mid 1980s. Some of the same areas that get by record snows also endured power outages caused by heavy snow and ice on power lines. Power lines from nuclear plants were damaged, causing the nuclear plants to shut down. Trains were also shut down.

The walls of snow in 2,390-meter-high Yuki no Otani (“Great Snow Valley”) on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route between Toyama and Nagano prefectures were up to 19 meters high when the route was opened in April in 2006.

Heavy Snow in Northwest Japan in 2010-2011

The Hokuriku region of Niigata, Fukui and Tottori prefectures got hit by unusually heavy snow---up to four meters as of mid February--- in the winter of 2010-2011. The harsh weather was particularly tough since many of the residents of the area are in their 70s and 80s. An 87-year-old women whose house had snow up the second floor balcony and told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “It was difficult to get out.” When she passed by other house she made a point to stay some distance away so she wouldn’t be buried by a sudden rooftop avalanche. Some houses had snow tunnels to reach their front doors and required lights to be on the daytime as snow covered all the windows. Numerous greenhouses were crushed.

As of February 19th 2011, 96 people had died in snow-related accidents in snow-related accidents in 13 prefectures, with 19 in Niigata and 15 in Hokkaido. Sixty people were killed removing snow, many of them from rooftops, Snow sliding off roofs and other places, burying people, killed another 12. On top of that, 971 were injured in snow-related accidients.

From December 2005 to March 2006 152 people died in snow-related accidents. A cold air mass in November brought snow to tropical Amami-Oshima Island near Okinawa and shut down overnight trains and delayed more than 3000 local trains on the main islands of Japan. Record low temperatures were recorded in a number of places. A record 192 centimeters of snow accumulated at Kitahiroshimacho in Hiroshima Prefecture . More than three meters of snow piled up in Sukayu hot springs in Aomori Prefecture.

Heavy Snow in Japan in 2012

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Many areas across the country, mainly along the Sea of Japan from Hokkaido to the Kinki region, saw heavy snow because of a strong wintertime low-pressure pattern. Heavy snow repeatedly caused power outages on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Gifu-Hashima and Maibara stations after heavy snow felled a tree over the Shinkansen line's overhead wires shortly after 9 a.m. Tokyo-bound train operations were suspended between Shin-Osaka and Maibara while Shin-Osaka-bound train operations also were temporarily halted between Tokyo and Gifu-Hashima, JR officials said. Though the Shinkansen runs resumed at 11:18 a.m., bullet trains continued running at reduced speed, the officials said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 27, 2011]

“The snow forced Central Japan Railway Co. to cancel 22 Shinkansen trains as of 1 p.m., delaying 66 trains up to 21/2 hours and affecting about 60,000 passengers. The Meteorological Agency said about 50 centimeters of snowfall was observed in wide areas along the Sea of Japan during the 24 hours up to 3 a.m.. As of 11 a.m., 87 centimeters of snowfall was recorded in the Yanagase area in Shiga Prefecture, while Uwano Heights in Hyogo Prefecture received 103 centimeters of snow. [Ibid]

Heavy Snow in 2012: Aged Residents Unable to Dig Out, Houses in Danger of Collapse

Naoko Kagemoto and Kentaro Matsumoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Local governments in heavy snow areas are making all-out efforts to find people to help remove snow. According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, heavy snow this winter had claimed 52 lives as of February. Of those, 36 were aged 65 or older. Thirty-one people died while they were removing snow from roofs or roads. It is feared that this winter's snowfall may become as heavy as that of the winter of 2005-2006, in which 152 people died in snow-related accidents.The snow-hit region includes depopulated and aging areas where it is difficult to secure enough people to remove heavy accumulations of snow. These areas have been experiencing serious harm, with many elderly residents dying or suffering injuries while shoveling snow. [Source: Naoko Kagemoto and Kentaro Matsumoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 3, 2012]

“Municipalities have come up with a variety of measures, including providing subsidies to volunteers and enacting ordinances regarding abandoned houses that may be destroyed due to snow. In Okura, Yamagata Prefecture, a village where residents aged 65 or older account for more than 30 percent of the population, 330 centimeters of snowfall had been recorded as of that time. The village government has been receiving calls for help from elderly residents to remove snow from their houses, with many of them saying they have no one else to ask. [Ibid]

“The village government recruits volunteers for snow removal every winter. However, it has found far fewer people willing to extend a helping hand this winter because many locals have their hands full dealing with snow around their own houses.The Yamagata prefectural government has begun to cover travel costs and insurance fees for volunteers to encourage them to head for municipalities in need of additional hands for snow removal efforts. One volunteer organization can receive up to 60,000 yen in subsidies. According to the prefectural government, there were 107 volunteer organizations in the prefecture as of the end of 2010. However, many of them limit their activities to certain areas. By providing subsidies, the prefectural government hopes to encourage them to conduct volunteer activities away from the municipalities they are based in. [Ibid]

“Depopulated areas have many houses left abandoned for a long time. These houses can pose a danger in heavy snowfall areas because they may collapse under the snow on their roofs, thus injuring passersby or damaging neighboring buildings. Five municipalities in southern Akita Prefecture--including Yokote and Daisen--have just enacted ordinances regarding abandoned houses. If these governments find such buildings that could collapse due to heavy snowfall, they can issue instructions, recommendations or orders to owners regarding properly maintaining or demolishing the houses. "I feel frightened thinking about when the buildings might collapse due to this heavy snow," said a 70-year-old woman living nearby. "As my husband is bedridden, we cannot escape immediately if there is an accident.” [Ibid]

“The Niigata prefectural government focuses on supporting people who are particularly vulnerable to disasters, including elderly households. It selected 11,526 households in 12 cities and towns as being in need of support as of January. This winter, the prefectural government sent volunteers to those households to remove snow and strengthened patrols by welfare commissioners to watch over them. [Ibid]

500 Vehicles Stranded by Snow in Aomori

In February 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “More than 500 vehicles were stranded on a section of National Highway Route 279 in Yokohama, Aomori Prefecture, after a large truck and a bus skidded and became stuck on the road due to a blizzard, according to police. Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura asked the head of the Marine Self-Defense Force's Ominato District Headquarters to send a disaster relief team to the town. [Ibid]

“According to the Aomori prefectural government, 250 drivers caught in the gridlock abandoned their vehicles and spent the night at eight public facilities nearby, including an assembly hall and a primary school, opened as temporary shelters by the Yokohama town government and the neighboring city of Mutsu. In response to Mimura's request, 38 MSDF members arrived at the site and checked on the safety of the people in the vehicles. A male passenger of the bus in his 20s was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital as he felt sick and dizzy. There were no reports of injuries. [Ibid]

“After the blizzard subsided volunteer firefighters and residents of local communities helped remove snow from the road. Vehicles that had been stuck in the snow finally began moving again at about 9:30 a.m. As the prefectural government was still checking on people in vehicles, a 39-kilometer-long section from Mutsu to Noheji in the prefecture remained closed. Local residents also assisted tired drivers and passengers. A 69-year-old liquor shop owner living in Yokohama cooked about 150 rice balls and distributed them to people in their vehicles. [Ibid]

Avalanches in Japan

Lots of Japanese winter hikers, climbers, skiers and snowboarders die every winter in avalanches. In January 2008, four climbers died on 3,180-meter-high Mt. Yarigatake in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture after being engulfed by an avalanche around midnight. The four were with a group of seven that were camped in tents on the mountain. Snows of up to three meters were reported and avalanche warnings had been issued. In November 2011 five skiers were engulfed by an avalanche in the Tateyama area of the Northern Alps. Two of them died. In December four people were killed by an avalanche at a ski resort in the Okudaisen area of Tottori Prefecture.

Nobuhiko Harada wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the "tragedies are believed to have been caused by surface avalanches, which often occur in midwinter when a layer of newly accumulated snow slides off the old layer beneath. The avalanche grows as it collects more snow. To reduce the risk of tragedy, researchers are trying to develop effective methods of predicting avalanches. In the 1970s, researchers led by the University of Toyama began studying avalanches in Kurobe Canyon. That work and other studies across the nation have revealed the true nature of surface avalanches. [Source: Nobuhiko Harada, Yomiuri Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 27, 2012]

A total of 78 people died in avalanches in the 1990s, 85 percent of them pursuing a winter sport such as skiing or climbing snow-covered peaks. Two avalanches on March 22, 1982 killed 16 people in 24 hours. In May 2006, three people were killed---one male and two female climbers---and two were rescued in a avalanche near 2,821-meter-high Mt. Harinoki in the Nagano area. In November 2010, a skier was killed and four others were injured in an avalanche in Tateyama-chi in Toyama Prefecture.

Avalanche Kills Three at Akita Onsen in 2012

In February 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, one man and two women were killed by an avalanche that occurred around 5 p.m. at a hot spring resort in Semboku, Akita Prefecture, according to police. The 40-meter-wide avalanche struck a bedrock bathing area about 300 meters from a Japanese-style inn at Tamagawa Onsen, the police said. The victims were Etsuko Kusakai, 63, of Izumi Ward, Yokohama; Yoko Masukawa, 65, of Nakano Ward, Tokyo; and Yuzuru Saito, 59, of Semboku. All three were staying at the inn. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , February 3, 2012]

In the area where the avalanche hit, three tents set up by the inn for bathers were buried under 1.5 meters of snow. Kusakai and Masukawa died of chest compression, while Saito died of suffocation due to burns in her respiratory tract caused by geothermal heat. [Ibid]

“Tamagawa Onsen is located in Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Many cancer patients visit the resort hoping to enjoy therapeutic effects from the hot spring. After the avalanche, two guests bathing in the same area reported the accident to the inn. They were also buried by the snow, but managed to dig themselves out on their own. Staff members of the inn dug the three victims out of the snow and attempted to revive them with cardiac massages at the site, and then at the inn with an automated external defibrillator. The victims were confirmed dead after being transported to a hospital. [Ibid]

“An avalanche warning for Akita Prefecture was issued, heavy snow and strong winds pummeled areas on the Sea of Japan coast in northern and western Japan. Takeshi Ito, professor emeritus at the Akita National College of Technology, said the accident may have been caused by a surface avalanche, which occurs when a fresh layer of snow slides over a compressed layer. "The speed of surface avalanches can sometimes exceed 100 kilometers per hour. Their destructive force is considerable," Ito said. [Ibid]

“According to the inn, guests are permitted to use the bedrock bath year-round. Although the inn asks guests to refrain from nighttime bathing, as it becomes dark after 4 p.m., regular visitors prefer bathing at night because the area is less crowded. [Ibid]

See Train Accident

Image Sources: 1) Aizu city site 2) Snow Japan 3) Japan Zone 4) 7) Ray Kinnane 5) LIbrary of Congress, 6) Earthquake Image Archives M. Yoshimine, Tokyo Metropolitan University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2012

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