Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 Facts

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What Caused This?
  3. What were the Geological and Oceanographical Parts of the Tsunami?
  4. Why Was This Not Predicted?
  5. The Nuclear Disaster as a Result
  6. Could this Happen Here?
  7. Conclusion
  8. Works Cited

Nobody expected it. This was an event that killed nearly 16,000 people. It was also an event that cost $360 billion dollars worth of damage. Over 2,500 people remain missing from this catastrophe. This once-in-a-generation disaster was caused by two tectonic plates colliding along a subduction zone at a 9.0-9.1 magnitude. The tsunami started when two tectonic plates from the Pacific Ocean and North America slid over each other. It all started on Friday, March 11, 2011, when an earthquake that was undersea with a magnitude of 8.9 struck Japan’s northeast coast. Japanese authorities immediately issued a tsunami warning. A few hours later, a tsunami with 30-foot waves, triggered by the earthquake measured at 10 meters struck that same coast along with powerful aftershocks. This damaged several nuclear reactors in the area. This earthquake and tsunami also had geological effects on places that one would not expect such as orbits in space and icebergs in Antarctica. Fortunately, the United States does not have to worry about such a thing occurring on its land due to the position of the tectonic plates. The same goes for tsunamis because the United States coasts can withstand the type of waves Japan encountered on that day in 2011. Many people fail to understand the causes of this earthquake and other earthquakes in general. Some also fail to link the earthquake's power with the tsunami’s power. The following research aims to explain all of these points in great detail.


Japan is no stranger to deadly natural disasters. In fact, this particular disaster is not even the deadliest in their nation’s history. The Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people. In 1995, another earthquake in the city of Kobe resulted in almost 6000 deaths. Other natural disasters in this country include volcanic eruptions and mudslides. These disasters can be connected to people’s lives due to the fact Japan is home to 126.8 million people and a constantly booming tourism industry. When discussing this particular disaster, it is important to note that it was not predicted prior or its occurrence. On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake measured at an 8.9 magnitude on the Richter Scale occurred on Japan’s northeastern coast. This allowed a tsunami with 30-foot waves to also hit the coast. Accompanying them were aftershocks with many of them surpassing a 7.0 magnitude. Shortly thereafter on the same day, the Japanese government announced that four nuclear power facilities were located within the affected areas. The very next day, American Geological Survey finds that the earthquake was powerful enough to Honshu, the main island of Japan by 2.4 meters. Many questions still remain from this catastrophe. What caused all of this? Why could this have not been predicted? Why is Japan prone to natural disasters as opposed to other countries? Can something like this ever occur here in the United States? What causes other earthquakes? What was the geology and oceanography of the tsunami? How exactly are these earthquakes measured and what makes some higher and lower magnitudes? What was the worst effect it had on nuclear plants? The following pages will address all of these outstanding questions in great detail utilizing visuals such as charts, maps, data, and photos. They will also explain the geological process of the occurrence of earthquakes and tsunamis.

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What Caused This?

Typically, earthquakes occur when underground rock begins to break on a fault. There were many moving parts that caused this earthquake and tsunami to occur. Two of earth’s tectonic plates collided with each other along a subduction zone. According to Becky Oskin of Live Science, “A subduction zone is the biggest crash scene on Earth. These boundaries mark the collusion between two of the planet’s tectonic plates. The plates are pieces of crust that slowly move across the planet’s surface over millions of years”(Oskin 1). It is here where a plate begins to move into the earth’s mantle. The two plates at the forefront of the earthquake are the Japan Trench and the Pacific Ocean plate. The plates within these zones gain heat and stick with each other for years while acquiring energy over time. This process takes hundreds of years in order to release the amount of tension it released on that day. When this earthquake occurred on March 11th, 2011, it was a result of centuries of tension buildup. Kenneth Chang wrote in the New York Times, “The largest earthquakes occur in subduction zones, places where an ocean plate collides with and slides under a continental plate, particularly around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. But some subduction zones seemed to produce more large earthquakes than others.” Chang elaborated on his theory by adding, “The older, colder, and denser ocean plates like those of Java and the Marianas trench in the Pacific would sink more easily and not produce the giant catastrophic quakes' (Chang 1). The tsunami was a direct result of this powerful earthquake. The tsunami was a result of the North American tectonic plate sliding right over the ocean plate. The sea floor was lifted and produced 30-foot waves as it approached land. It took approximately 25 minutes for the tsunami to.

What were the Geological and Oceanographical Parts of the Tsunami?

Gregory A Petsko of Genome Biology writes, “The word 'tsunami' comes from the Japanese words for harbor (tsu) and wave (NAMI). It refers to a series of giant undersea waves that travel at high velocity for very long distances, and that crest when they hit a shoreline in the form of a devastating surge, sometimes as much as 30 meters high” (Petsko 1). This tsunami exceeded that definition and description because it was 128 feet high or 39 meters. Typically, the speed of the tsunami depends on how deep the ocean is. The deeper the ocean the higher velocity it produces. The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest ocean in the world with an average depth of 4280 meters. The tsunami occurred because the North American tectonic plate slid over the tectonic plate belonging to the Pacific Ocean. The sea levels began to rise as they progressed towards the northeastern Japanese coast. The tsunami was responsible for the damage more than the earthquake because the earthquake was about only 20 kilometers deep when it began. According to the United States Geological Survey, some earthquakes have the capability of reaching 470 kilometers. Emily So, a USGS engineer informed the New York Times this indicates that the fast-moving waves coming from the ocean at 500 miles per hour. Tokyo University professor Takashi Furmura says, “The quake's shallow focus and massive scale explain why the tsunami was so huge” (Formula 1). In other words, due to the fact that the earthquake was not spread out and had only one focal point, the tsunami was able to build its height alongside its considerable size to hit Japan with unprecedented force.

Why Was This Not Predicted?

Have you ever noticed that other natural disasters can be predicted such as hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and snow storms? Notice how earthquakes are not mentioned in that list. Peggy Hellweg, an Operations Manager at the University of California Berkley told Weird.com, “Seismologists just don’t have enough information about the processes that are going on in Earth. We know the stress is building up, but we don’t know the details of each particular location, and when the stress is going to be too much for it. That’s the problem with earthquake prediction” (Hellwegg 1). She is telling us that the earth is constantly changing. Some of the changes are big. Some of the changes are small. We are unable to find which changes in terms of location will affect earth the most. Technology simply has not developed yet that would allow us to know exactly when an earthquake will take place and where it will take place. As far as the 2011 earthquake in Japan was concerned, scientists predicted a small-scale earthquake would strike a different region around that time. Travis Donovan of the Huffington Post interviewed Dr. Daniel McNamara, a seismologist of the United States Geological Survey. McNamara told Donovan, “If you find a scientist that has been studying a specific region and predicting an earthquake and one occurs out of that region, they will say it’s a surprise, but it’s still an active region” (McNamara 1). There are, however; some technologies that help seismologist measure earthquakes and alert them of movement within the earth. For instance, a Seismograph Model helps monitor the earth’s soil and gives a timeline of when an earthquake may occur. Tokyo residents received a one-minute warning before the earthquake began due to the fact the earthquake had already begun in other coastal cities along eastern Japan and strong shaking had been felt for three to five minutes.

The Nuclear Disaster as a Result

Andrea Thompson of Scientific American had a take. A massive nuclear disaster arose from this event and it was called the Fukushima Accident. It took place at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northern Japan and it is the second-worst nuclear accident in history. “This nuclear plant has 6 generators and at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, 3 of them were operational while the other 3 were under maintenance. It was reported that the waves from the tsunami were responsible for damaging backup generators in the plant. The earthquake was powerful enough to cut the plant’s power from the national grid. Operators at the plant were able to turn off the reactors; however, the power went off causing cooling systems to crumble. The reactors could not get the cooling they needed from the backup generators and because they were already at very high temperatures, they overheated and a steam explosion occurred. Around 4 in the afternoon that day, a 46-foot tsunami exceeds the protective wall and floods the entire facility. This immediately causes all of the generators, both main and backup, to completely shut down. At this point, all power is lost and temperatures quickly rise. The three reactors lose all water levels which leaves the fuel rods exposed to heat and melting. When this happens, harmful radiation can be exposed miles from the plant which forces the government to evacuate citizens living within a twelve-mile radius of the facility. All reactors eventually meltdown and two of them exploded. The effects of this disaster continue to this day. For example, approximately 50,000 households are still evacuated. Furthermore, food that was around the plant such as fish and vegetables have been banned due to potential radiation poisoning. Finally, the water from within the plant has been seized by the Japanese government in order to prevent it from going into the environment and poisoning wildlife and people.

Could this Happen Here?

After such a devastating natural disaster, one has to ask if something like this can happen in the United States. Geologists are able to answer that question by breaking down each of the regions of this massive land. When determining which areas are more likely to experience earthquakes and tsunamis, it is important to understand the location. The closer a place is to a subduction zone, the higher risk it has of experiencing what Japan experienced. Historically, the west coast of the United States has been vulnerable to tsunamis because it is on the Pacific Rim where many earthquakes occur. More evidence found by the United States Geological Survey such as submerged vegetation indicates that the west coast has earthquakes with high magnitudes every 500 years. This gives geologists reason to believe that the west coast could also be subject to devastating tsunamis in the future. On the contrary, the eastern coast of the United States mainland has no big subduction zone so the risk and frequency of tsunamis and earthquakes are extremely low. The east coast is more vulnerable to other natural disasters such as hurricanes. American territories such as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are more vulnerable to tsunamis because they share a subduction zone with the Caribbean Sea. When it comes to the Gulf Coast, earthquakes and tsunamis are present; however, they are not destructive. As a matter of fact, tsunamis reported in this region are typically less than a meter high. The only two places that may be the most susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis are Alaska and Hawaii. Hawaii is in the heart of the Pacific Rim which is sometimes referred to as the “Ring of Fire” due to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Alaska is bordered south by a massive subduction zone which makes the state prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.


This event will be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in history. According to worldvision.org, this is the costliest disaster in history with a whopping $360 billion worth of damages and destruction. Approximately 20 million people died or went missing. It caused a nuclear meltdown resulting in the release of harmful radioactive material. It displaced tens of thousands of Japanese citizens. There is food in Japan that the government bans due to the continuing effects of radiation.

In conclusion, the earthquake was caused by two of the earth’s tectonic plates colliding at a subduction zone. The tsunami was a result of the earthquake and the height of the waves of the tsunami was contributed by the Pacific Ocean’s depth. This was not predicted by seismologists just do not have enough technology to predict it. This event caused a massive nuclear meltdown with long-lasting effects that are present today. The United States mainland is not subject to these events; however, Hawaii and Alaska could face similar hardships as those in Japan.

Works Cited

  1. “Can It Happen Here?” Can It Happen Here? www.usgs.gov/natural-hazards/earthquake-hazards/science/can-it-happen-here?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  2. “Can You Predict Earthquakes?” Can You Predict Earthquakes? www.usgs.gov/faqs/can-you-predict-earthquakes?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products.
  3. Chang, Kenneth. “Blindsided by Ferocity Unleashed by a Fault.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/science/22predict.html.
  4. Donovan, Travis. “Scientists: Japan Quake Shifted Coastline Nearly 8 Feet.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 25 May 2011, www.huffpost.com/entry/japan-earthquake-axis-shift-climate-change_n_834985?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMVKncjwkbC1bRffdibTZWkgW8-xo2T0hM7XpVi4ZyguBOgTnybyJifpuH7ErqPQ6TT7chXGHC6z_tQn-5I6LAjv5a9rQHK3Z7PlVia9IkUzWvPHmbfcuu4CgYsa-Bj91bYMCQhvExtNDe_K_dJpmKt-ShSVYKgZcbWg3vRMS9MJ.
  5. Oskin, Becky. “What Is a Subduction Zone?” LiveScience, Purch, 7 May 2015, www.livescience.com/43220-subduction-zone-definition.html.
  6. Petsko, Gregory A. “Tsunami.” Genome Biology, BioMed Central, 31 Jan. 2005, genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2005-6-2-104.
  7. Thompson, Andrea. “Radioactive Glass Beads May Tell the Terrible Tale of How the Fukushima Meltdown Unfolded.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 11 Mar. 2019, www.scientificamerican.com/article/radioactive-glass-beads-may-tell-the-terrible-tale-of-how-the-Fukushima-meltdown-unfolded/.
  8. Walker, Marley. “Chill Out, No One Can Predict Earthquakes-Including Japan.” Wired, Conde Nast, 3 June 2017, www.wired.com/2016/11/chill-no-one-can-predict-earthquakes-including-japan/.
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Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 Facts. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/japan-earthquake-and-tsunami-in-2011-facts/
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