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Earthquakes and tsunamis

Earthquakes are caused by the release of built-up pressure at plate boundaries. They can destroy buildings and infrastructure. Tsunamis can also occur, with equally devastating and deadly effects.

Case study: Japan tsunami 2011

The 2011 tsunami breached sea defences at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station

On Friday 11 March 2011 at 14:46:24, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred. It was at the point where the Pacific tectonic plate slides beneath the North American plate. The epicentre was 30 kilometres below the Pacific Ocean seabed and 129 km off the east coast of Honshu, Japan. This triggered a tsunami. High, powerful waves were generated and travelled across the Pacific Ocean. The area worst affected by the tsunami was the east coast of Honshu in Japan.

Main impacts

Infrastructure.

Social and economic

Responses to the disaster

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Japan Earthquake 2011

Japan earthquake 2011 case study.

An earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale struck off Japan’s northeast coast, about 250 miles (400km) from Tokyo at a depth of 20 miles.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake happened at 2:46 pm (local time) on Friday, March 11, 2011.

The earthquake occurred 250 miles off the North East Coast of Japan’s main island Honshu.

Japan 2011 Earthquake map

Japan 2011 Earthquake map

Japan is located on the eastern edge of the Eurasian Plate. The Eurasian plate, which is continental, is subducted by the Pacific Plate, an oceanic plate forming a subduction zone to the east of Japan. This type of plate margin is known as a destructive plate margin. The process of subduction is not smooth. Friction causes the Pacific Plate to stick. Pressure builds and is released as an earthquake.

Friction has built up over time, and when released, this caused a massive ‘megathrust’ earthquake.

The amount of energy released in this single earthquake was 600 million times the energy of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb.

Scientists drilled into the subduction zone soon after the earthquake and discovered a thin, slippery clay layer lining the fault. The researchers think this clay layer allowed the two plates to slide an incredible distance, some 164 feet (50 metres), facilitating the enormous earthquake and tsunami.

2011 Japan Earthquake Map

2011 Japan Earthquake Map

The earthquake occurred at a relatively shallow depth of 20 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. This, combined with the high magnitude, caused a tsunami (find out more about how a tsunami is formed on the BBC website).

Areas affected by the 2011 Japanese earthquake.

What were the primary effects of the 2011 Japan earthquake?

Impacts on people

Death and injury – Some 15,894 people died, and 26,152 people were injured. 130,927 people were displaced, and 2,562 remain missing.

Damage – 332,395 buildings, 2,126 roads, 56 bridges and 26 railways were destroyed or damaged. 300 hospitals were damaged, and 11 were destroyed.

Blackouts – Over 4.4 million households were left without electricity in North-East Japan.

Transport – Japan’s transport network suffered huge disruptions.

Impacts on the environment

Landfall – some coastal areas experienced land subsidence as the earthquake dropped the beachfront in some places by more than 50 cm.

Land movement – due to tectonic shift, the quake moved parts of North East Japan 2.4 m closer to North America.

Plate shifts – It has been estimated by geologists that the Pacific plate has slipped westwards by between 20 and 40 m.

Seabed shift – The seabed near the epicentre shifted by 24 m, and the seabed off the coast of the Miyagi province has moved by 3 m.

Earth axis moves – The earthquake moved the earth’s axis between 10 and 25 cm, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds.

Liquefaction occurred in many of the parts of Tokyo built on reclaimed land. 1,046 buildings were damaged

What were the secondary effects of the 2011 Japan earthquake?

Economy – The earthquake was the most expensive natural disaster in history, with an economic cost of US$235 billion.

Tsunami –  Waves up to 40 m in high devastated entire coastal areas and resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. This caused a lot of damage and pollution up to 6 miles inland. The tsunami warnings in coastal areas were only followed by 58% who headed for higher ground. The wave hit 49% of those not following the warning.

Nuclear power – Seven reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power station experienced a meltdown. Levels of radiation were over eight times the normal levels.

Transport –  Rural areas remained isolated for a long time because the tsunami destroyed major roads and local trains and buses. Sections of the Tohoku Expressway were damaged. Railway lines were damaged, and some trains were derailed. 

Aftermath – The ‘Japan move forward committee’ thought that young adults and teenagers could help rebuild parts of Japan devastated by the earthquake.

Coastal changes – The tsunami was able to travel further inland due to a 250-mile stretch of coastline dropping by 0.6 m.

What were the immediate responses to the Japan 2011 earthquake?

What were the long-term responses to the Japan 2011 earthquake?

Why do people live in high-risk areas in Japan?

There are several reasons why people live in areas of Japan at risk of tectonic hazards:

Japan’s worst previous earthquake was of 8.3 magnitude and killed 143,000 people in Kanto in 1923. A magnitude 7.2 quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995 .

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Case Study: How does Japan live with earthquakes?

Japan lies within one of the most tectonically active zones in the world. It experiences over 400 earthquakes every day. The majority of these are not felt by humans and are only detected by instruments. Japan has been hit by a number of high-intensity earthquakes in the past. Since 2000 there are have been 16000 fatalities as the result of tectonic activity.

Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the North American, Pacific, Eurasian and Philippine plates come together. Northern Japan is on top of the western tip of the North American plate. Southern Japan sits mostly above the Eurasian plate. This leads to the formation of volcanoes such as Mount Unzen and Mount Fuji. Movements along these plate boundaries also present the risk of tsunamis to the island nation. The Pacific Coastal zone, on the east coast of Japan, is particularly vulnerable as it is very densely populated.

The 2011 Japan Earthquake: Tōhoku

Japan experienced one of its largest seismic events on March 11 2011. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred 70km off the coast of the northern island of Honshu where the Pacific and North American plate meet. It is the largest recorded earthquake to hit Japan and is in the top five in the world since records began in 1900. The earthquake lasted for six minutes.

A map to show the location of the 2011 Japan Earthquake

A map to show the location of the 2011 Japan Earthquake

The earthquake had a significant impact on the area. The force of the megathrust earthquake caused the island of Honshu to move east 2.4m. Parts of the Japanese coastline dr[[ed by 60cm. The seabed close to the focus of the earthquake rose by 7m and moved westwards between 40-50m. In addition to this, the earthquake shifted the Earth 10-15cm on its axis.

The earthquake triggered a tsunami which reached heights of 40m when it reached the coast. The tsunami wave reached 10km inland in some places.

What were the social impacts of the Japanese earthquake in 2011?

The tsunami in 2011 claimed the lives of 15,853 people and injured 6023. The majority of the victims were over the age of 60 (66%). 90% of the deaths was caused by drowning. The remaining 10% died as the result of being crushed in buildings or being burnt. 3282 people were reported missing, presumed dead.

Disposing of dead bodies proved to be very challenging because of the destruction to crematoriums, morgues and the power infrastructure. As the result of this many bodies were buried in mass graves to reduce the risk of disease spreading.

Many people were displaced as the result of the tsunami. According to Save the Children 100,000 children were separated from their families. The main reason for this was that children were at school when the earthquake struck. In one elementary school, 74 of 108 students and 10 out of 13 staff lost their lives.

More than 333000 people had to live in temporary accommodation. National Police Agency of Japan figures shows almost 300,000 buildings were destroyed and a further one million damaged, either by the quake, tsunami or resulting fires. Almost 4,000 roads, 78 bridges and 29 railways were also affected. Reconstruction is still taking place today. Some communities have had to be relocated from their original settlements.

What were the economic impacts of the Japanese earthquake in 2011?

The estimated cost of the earthquake, including reconstruction, is £181 billion. Japanese authorities estimate 25 million tonnes of debris were generated in the three worst-affected prefectures (counties). This is significantly more than the amount of debris created during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. 47,700 buildings were destroyed and 143,300 were damaged. 230,000 vehicles were destroyed or damaged. Four ports were destroyed and a further 11 were affected in the northeast of Japan.

There was a significant impact on power supplies in Japan. 4.4 million households and businesses lost electricity. 11 nuclear reactors were shut down when the earthquake occurred. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was decommissioned because all six of its reactors were severely damaged. Seawater disabled the plant’s cooling systems which caused the reactor cores to meltdown, leading to the release of radioactivity. Radioactive material continues to be released by the plant and vegetation and soil within the 30km evacuation zone is contaminated. Power cuts continued for several weeks after the earthquake and tsunami. Often, these lasted between 3-4 hours at a time. The earthquake also had a negative impact on the oil industry as two refineries were set on fire during the earthquake.

Transport was also negatively affected by the earthquake. Twenty-three train stations were swept away and others experienced damage. Many road bridges were damaged or destroyed.

Agriculture was affected as salt water contaminated soil and made it impossible to grow crops.

The stock market crashed and had a negative impact on companies such as Sony and Toyota as the cost of the earthquake was realised.  Production was reduced due to power cuts and assembly of goods, such as cars overseas, were affected by the disruption in the supply of parts from Japan.

What were the political impacts of the Japanese earthquake in 2011?

Government debt was increased when it injects billions of yen into the economy. This was at a time when the government were attempting to reduce the national debt.

Several years before the disaster warnings had been made about the poor defences that existed at nuclear power plants in the event of a tsunami. A number of executives at the Fukushima power plant resigned in the aftermath of the disaster. A movement against nuclear power, which Japan heavily relies on, developed following the tsunami.

The disaster at Fukushima added political weight in European countries were anti-nuclear bodies used the event to reinforce their arguments against nuclear power.

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