What Happened in the Japanese Earthquake—and Why It Could've Been Worse

By Patrick Morgan | March 11, 2011 2:15 pm

Japan’s massive earthquake today may be over, but we’re still feeling the effects, from nuclear reactor scares in Japan to tsunami warnings along the entire west coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Much is still unknown about this earthquake, including official destruction assessments and total death tolls, but here’s what we do know:

Two preliminary earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.2 and 6.3  struck off the coast of Honshu, Japan, the day before the major blow: This 8.9-magnitude quake—the largest in Japan’s recorded history—struck at 2:46 pm local time on Friday, its epicenter located about 231 miles northeast of Tokyo at a depth of 15 miles. Even after this large one, over thirty aftershocks—the strongest measuring 7.1 in magnitude—continued to batter the island nation.

The Immediate Effects

Fires and collapsed buildings were the main cause of injuries and death early on, from conflagrations sweeping an oil refinery in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo to the roof collapsing during a graduation ceremony in Tokyo. But fears soon centered on Japan’s nuclear facilities: Four power plants successfully shut down, but one experienced problems:

According to Nature’s Tokyo correspondent, David Cyranoski, Japanese media are reporting that the emergency core cooling system (ECCS) at the Fukushima #1 plant is not working due to a loss of electrical power, and problems with the backup diesel generator. The reactor is currently relying on an alternate cooling system that circulates water using a pump system. This system can operate for about 7 to 8 hours. According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the government’s industry ministry, this is the first time in Japan that the ECCS of a nuclear power station has not functioned. [Nature]

The local governments near the Fukushima plant urged the area’s 2,000 residents to evacuate, though no leaks have been detected and the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum assured everyone (pdf) that Fukushima reactor’s core “still has a sufficient amount of water for cooling, with no danger of the nuclear fuel being exposed”.

Why It Could Have Been Worse

Death tolls are uncertain right now, but what is known is that the numbers are currently in the hundreds—not the thousands. That’s through a combination of luck and preparation. Kevin McCue, a seismologist at CQUniversity in Queensland, Australia, told the Telegraph that the initial death toll would probably have been much higher if the epicenter were closer to Tokyo, instead of off the coast. But Japan was also very much prepared for this quake: Its main island—Honshu Island—sits at the intersection of the Eurasian, Pacific, and Philippine tectonic plates, as part of the notoriously seismically active Ring of Fire. Because earthquakes are a normal occurrence for Japan, their buildings stood up well considering the magnitude of the quake.

Over the years, Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis…. From seawalls that line stretches of Japan’s coastline, to skyscrapers that sway to absorb earthquakes, to building codes that are among the world’s most rigorous, no country may be better prepared to withstand earthquakes than Japan. [New York Times]

In addition to Japanese building codes and the earthquake’s location, technology is also helping the nation deal with the quake: Google, for example, has a Person Finder program that’s enabling Japanese citizens to search for loved ones or to post queries.

Tsunami

The quake shocks triggered over 30-foot-high waves to sweep across Japan’s coastal rice fields: It ripped homes from their foundations, engulfed entire towns, and caused the evacuation of thousands of people. “Roads were badly damaged and cut off as the tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things,” Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in Iwate, told the BBC. So far, at least one ship carrying 100 people is reported to be missing, and a dam burst near Fukushima prefecture.

Outside of Japan, the National Weather Service has warned over 50 countries and territories about possible tsunamis. The smaller nations around Japan—such as Indonesia and the Phillipines—were considered especially in danger because, unlike Japan, their governments may not be able to adequately respond to such an emergency.

While some officials feared that waves from the tsunami could be high enough to wash over entire islands in the Pacific, at least one expert said it was unlikely.The tsunami could cause significant damage and flooding, but “washing over islands is not going to happen,” said Gerard Fryer of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. [ABC]

When the waves reached Hawaii, the U.S. Geological Survey was surprised when the waves weren’t as high as expected—less than six feet. By the time the waves reach the west coast of the U.S., they’re likely to cause some coastal flooding and damage, but deaths should be avoidable.

Cindi Preller of the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre told Fox 11 News that the tsunami could cause some unusually high tides but not major inundations. She said it was possible that officials will ask that beaches be cleared as a precaution and believed that the situation on the California coast might be similar to the aftermath of last year’s Chile quake. That quake caused some small waves but caused no major damage. [Daily Mail]

So while the water waves triggered by the earthquake make their way around the world, and Japan picks up the rubble from their strongest recorded earthquake, the main destruction from the fifth largest earthquake in the past century is over—and an even bigger disaster was avoided for Japan because of its strict building codes.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Exactly What Happens to the Ground at a Fault Line?
DISCOVER: Is the West Coast Ready for a Tsunami?
DISCOVER: Waves of Destruction
DISCOVER: The Next Big Quake

Image: USGS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News Roundup, Top Posts
  • Russ

    “So far, at least one sheep carrying 100 people is reported to be missing, and a dam burst near Fukushima prefecture.”

    • Patrick Morgan

      @ Russ and Terry: Thanks for noting the errors! As you can see, they’re now fixed.

  • Sheep Hearder

    that must be a large sheep.

  • Terry

    “People Finger” should probably be “People Finder”.

  • http://clubneko.net/ nick

    The 1923 Great Kanto quake killed anywhere from 100,000 to 140,000 folk. They have learned well the lessons of the past.

  • shoshana

    Agree with Terry: “People Finger” should probably be “People Finder”.

  • Matt

    No news like old news.

    I wish these TV stations/Journalist etc would call it a current affair it is in no way news. Is it new information that Japan is on a continental shelf…NO. Is it new information that Japan gets hit by earthquakes all the time…NO. Is it new information that people die in Earthquakes, as they do in most disasters..NO. Is it new information Earthquakes cause tsunamis..NO. Nothing “new” here.

    Whats actually news is the name of people who died, particluar buildings that fell down that shouldnt have and the area of devastation, so the only real news casters at the moment are google with People Finder.

    Come on tell me something new, tell me this building that should have survived failed badly and why. Tell me the extent of the devastation and why it made it that far, was it supposed to. As far as im aware they had very good defences and they all failed…Why dammit, Tell me. Why doesnt Japan have massive grates, channels and pumps that can channel this water and pump it out on the other side of the island as it travels underground rather than above it on the land.

    Sorry I get fed up with repeats in the news is all, and yes Japan will be hit by another Earthquake in the future, why not just troll up the same information for it..honestly no one will tell the difference.

  • http://johnsonanalytical.com Jeff Johnson

    @Matt (7): An 8.9 quake itself is not news? The lack of the devastation that one would normally associate with such a quake isn’t new? And why they can’t pump several cubic miles of water instantaneously 125 km through 100m mountain ranges is news?

  • http://www.puvins.webs.com puvins!!!!!

    i have read fully…finally i understand man can not live against nature….nature is most powerful than human…

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/suraky/ Surak

    Wow Matt, what a [bleep].

    You obviously don’t have a clue about what a tsunami actually is. It’s not simply a wave 7m tall like what you see in a storm … It’s a wave 7m tall, a few kilometres wide, and hundreds or thousands of kilometres long moving at the speed of a jet plane! … Ya! just build a channel! Just pipe it underground back to the sea!

    What a frickin Dumbass you are. … But I’m sure that to the people who know you, THAT isn’t really news either.

  • Whelk

    Sorry, one more:

    “Outside of Japan, the National Weather Service has warned over 50 countries and territories about possibly tsunamis.”

    Should be ‘possible.’

    Ed: Fixed now

  • Keir

    Nature is what we all fight against in the event of disasters like this. Japan is the most prepared for this, and it is news that they have avoided the greatest disaster because they were prepared with science and informed policy. However, this is a catastrophe beyond the scope of preparedness. They knew this was coming some day, and were well prepared, and have done their utmost as planned to alleviate the pain and suffering, going so far as to evacuate areas around Fukushima power plant just in case. If worse comes to worst, some radioactive material is released into the atmosphere, which will blow out to the Pacific Ocean, and the fallout to any countries (i.e. the US) in its wake will not be any more than any atmospheric nuclear detonation ever conducted by the military.

    In national emergencies drastic measures must be taken to ensure the well being of citizens, and Japan is more than capable of handling this situation. Any outside help is welcome, no doubt, as long as it is coordinated and does not hinder the plans put in place by the Japanese government for just this kind of disaster.

  • Tim Capino

    Is there a way to get a camera at the epicenter to see what is happening? If not now, when can that be done?

  • CJEH

    I just had the worst case of deja vu at Matt’s post. I could swear I read the exact same rant after the Haiti quake. I am sore tempted to go back and see if I can show the cut and paste.

  • reidh

    Did the residents get out of those buildings we can see being washed away into each other in those little coastal towns? This is a question the answer of which would be news to me.

  • Cerise

    Informative article
    Re: The discussion, not a current affair? Just watched a video on a different site, voices discussing, ooohhh dude, it’s goona hit that truck…. wwwhoooo. Listened to the whole thing curious if anyone of the group would ever say a thing about the poor people in the path (not a word of compassion or concern).
    Can’t help but imagine, the release of a new video gaming system is big news… a tsunami… the attempts to preserve life and property in a huge quake, the systems to alert other coasts, the technology that has enabled people in Japan to record, send and ask for assistance during the disaster… not a current affair?
    I suppose it isn’t if you can watch and not care or be interested in the science that has both preserved and endangered.
    It is an interesting approach to life on this planet.

  • siyavash hazrati

    i am sorry for that big problem for japenese
    i am ready to help nd even ready to come to japan for helping

  • Melissa Dowd

    National news, print and TV, keeps saying the quake was at the boundaries of the North AMerican plate and the Pacific Plate. But if you look at a map of plate boundaries, it sure likes like it is the Eurasian and Pacific plates, not the North American plate, that are involved.

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    Melissa, using this reference it looks to me that the northern half of Japan sits on the Okhotsk (OK) plate, which I’m guessing in more granular descriptions of plates is considered part of the North American (NA) plate (this map lumps them together). Comparing to the map provided in this post, it looks like the quake occurred slightly northeast of the 14 in the first map I linked.

    Since the quake was off the east coast, it seems reasonable to me that it was between the Pacific and North American plates. (Though I am by no means an expert on this.) Looking at these more closely it seems that Tokyo is built on the intersection of the Eurasian, Filipino, and North American plates, with the Pacific plate near by.

    Thinking about it a little more I wonder: how much further effort is reasonable in preparing for such events in the future? While they have successfully engineered solutions to building collapse, and it is reasonable to think the same could have been done for the nuclear power plants, what could have been done about the tsunamis? I’ve seen in places they have large storm walls built, but can they surround the country with them? And it is such a tremendous amount of water, I can’t think of any solution other than a gigantic wall, which seems impractical on that scale.

  • louise

    Everyone search HAARP & Japan Earthquake

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    Uh, louise, considering HAARP is an unclassified research program (and therefore their work is publicly accessible), and that earthquakes are a historically common phenomena in Japan (predating any technology at HAARP), and that the amount of energy released was just phenomenal, and that the occurrence of this quake is in line with the historical frequency of earthquakes in the area, and that the tectonic causes underlying this and other quakes is (fairly) well understood (though maybe there is a lot more we can learn?), it seems awfully unlikely that any human-made effort could cause any earthquake, let alone HAARP causing this particular quake.

    Beyond reasoning through scientific facts, we can also look at political and economic facts: what motivation would there be for American politicians and/or military commanders to want such a weapon? Our well-being is best served by a healthy Japan, willing to trade and produce high quality parts for technology that is highly sought everywhere on Earth (though America is still the biggest consumer of such products). Global economies are increasingly intertwined, and our entire information industry relies on parts made in Japan.

    Granted, while it is much more entertaining to buy into such conspiracies, it is also quite counter-productive to plague your fellow humans with additional nonsense—the truth can be hard to find, and we need all the truth we can get. So if you can, promote skepticism of extraordinary claims. Demand extraordinary evidence. And then vet it!

  • pete gow

    Japan is NOT on North American Plate. Alaska and Aleutians ARE on North American Plate. Japan is part of Asian Plate or associated plates.

  • pete gow

    Japan is NOT on North American Plate. Japan is on EURASIAN PLATE.

  • pete gow

    Cancel comment 21 please.

  • pete gow

    Further research on net shows Northern Japan is indeed on North American Plate. Rest of Japan is on Eurasian Plate. So I was half-right, half-wrong, and ALL wet. Sorry. Hard to Believe North American Plate extends so far west. Amazing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2011/03/11/what-happened-in-the-japanese-earthquake%E2%80%94and-why-it-couldve-been-worse/ Nadirah

    News like new news.

    I wish these TV stations/Journalist etc would call it a current affair it is in no way news. Is it new information that Japan is on a continental shelf…NO. Is it new information that Japan gets hit by earthquakes all the time…NO. Is it new information that people die in Earthquakes, as they do in most disasters..NO. Is it new information Earthquakes cause tsunamis..NO. Nothing “new” here.

    Whats actually news is the name of people who died, particluar buildings that fell down that shouldnt have and the area of devastation, so the only real news casters at the moment are google with People Finder.

    Come on tell me something new, tell me this building that should have survived failed badly and why. Tell me the extent of the devastation and why it made it that far, was it supposed to. As far as im aware they had very good defences and they all failed…Why dammit, Tell me. Why doesnt Japan have massive grates, channels and pumps that can channel this water and pump it out on the other side of the island as it travels underground rather than above it on the land.

    Sorry I get fed up with repeats in the news is all, and yes Japan will be hit by another Earthquake in the future, why not just troll up the same information for it..honestly no one will tell the difference.

  • http://WWW.orangjadahatke.biz Hong Ciesla

    Youmadea couple

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