The Sendai Earthquake an update

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1 Geography Today The Sendai Earthquake an update Professor David Petley Executive Director, Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University, United Kingdom Why does Japan have earthquakes? Whilst the world feels like a solid structure to us, in fact the surface is formed from giant plates continental-scale blocks of rock that are able to move. The rates at which they actually move are slow typically just a few centimetres per year, barely faster than the rate at which your fingernails grow but these movements are enough to generate the devastating earthquakes that we occasionally experience. The various islands that form Japan have been created by a collision between four of these great tectonic plates (Fig. 1). The Japanese landmass itself sits on two plates the northern part of the country sits on the North American plate, whilst the south is on the Eurasian plate. To the east of Japan are situated two oceanic plates in the north is the Pacific Plate, whilst to the south lies the Philippine plate. Fig. 1: The plate tectonic setting of Japan. The arrows show the measured directions of movement of the plates

2 The two oceanic plates are both moving in a generally westward direction at a rate of a few centimetres per year. The zones at which the plates collide lie on the seabed to the east of Japan (Fig. 1) and are marked by deep ocean trenches. At this point the oceanic plates are being forced under the continental plates in the process that we term subduction, as shown diagrammatically in Figure 2. Fig. 2: The basic subduction system operating in the vicinity of Japan Unfortunately, the contact surfaces termed a fault - between the plates are not smooth, meaning that the plates tend to stick together. The underlying plate movement, which is driven by the generation of heat deep in the Earth, does not stop during this time. As a result, energy is stored within the rocks around the contact between the plates, much in the way that energy is stored in an archer s bow as she pulls back the string. In general the longer the time-gap between release events, the larger the amount of energy that is stored. As the same time the overlying (upper plate) is pulled downwards by the ongoing movement of the continental plate (Fig. 3). Fig. 3: Diagram showing the generation of a tsunami during a subduction zone earthquake

3 Eventually sufficient energy is stored in the rocks to overcome the friction between the plates, resulting in a sudden movement on the fault. This is the earthquake. As this movement occurs the stored energy is instantaneously released, creating the earthquake waves that radiate outwards to cause such destruction. The overlying plate pops back up again (Fig. 3), lifting the seabed, and the overlying water, by several metres. A huge volume of water is now higher than that of the surrounding sea, and thus flows outwards to generate a tsunami. This is the process that occurred off eastern Japan in 11 th March. The Sendai Earthquake The earthquake in Sendai occurred on the fault that marks the boundary between the Pacific Plate to the east and the North American plate to the west (Fig. 4). This is an area that was known to have earthquake activity, and indeed has been subject to large numbers of earthquakes before, as Figure 4 shows. However, this is a section that had not experienced a very large earthquake during the period in which instruments have been recording seismic activity, suggesting that the plates were locked together. Indeed, a quick glance at Figure 4 shows that the recent earthquake activity in this area is lower than that to the north and south, which suggests that large amounts of energy were stored in the plates, waiting to be released. The earthquake caused the plates to move over a distance of at least 10 metres, and possibly much more, over a length of fault that is about 400 km from end to end (fig. 5). This resulted in a very large earthquake, now considered to magnitude 9.0 (meaning that it is the 4 th largest earthquake ever recorded). In this area the Japanese landmass moved by up to four metres towards the east, and in the area of the fault the seabed was uplifted by several metres, generating the catastrophic tsunami. Fig 4: Recorded earthquakes for the period in the vicinity of the Sendai earthquake. Each red circle is an individual earthquake, with the size of the dot representing the magnitude. Source: USGS 2010:

4 Fig. 5: Estimated shaking intensity for the Sendai Earthquake. Source: RMS 2011: What will happen next? After large earthquakes, the stresses in the crust are left in an unevenly distributed state. This always results in further earthquake activity over the following months and even years this is the so-called aftershock sequence. These aftershocks are quite intense initially in the hours after the earthquake typically occurring every few minutes - and then reduce as time passes. Typically, the largest aftershock is a little more than one unit down on the magnitude scale so for a magnitude 9.0 earthquake we would expect to see one aftershock with a magnitude of about 7.8, and many more that are smaller than this. However, there is no hard and fast rule about the largest aftershock, which

5 can be a little larger than this, or substantially smaller. A magnitude 7.8 event is a large earthquake in its own right however, and so those living in the areas affected by the main earthquake should be prepared for the possibility of such an event over the coming weeks. However, it should also be remembered that in terms of energy released by the earthquake, one step in the earthquake magnitude scale represents an increase in energy release of 33 times i.e. a magnitude 9 earthquake is 33 times greater than one with a magnitude of 8. Thus, the aftershocks are likely to have nothing like the destructive potential of the main shock on 11 th March. Rumours have also been circulating that the aftershock sequence is moving towards the south and in particular towards Tokyo. Data from the aftershocks to date do not indicate that this is happening in other words this rumour is incorrect (Fig. 6). Over the coming days seismologists will be determining whether this earthquake has increased the likelihood of another large earthquake in Japan beyond the aftershock sequence. At the moment there is no evidence that this is the case, but we will keep you informed of these studies. However, Japan is an earthquake-prone country, and for the foreseeable future we will have no techniques for predicting when an earthquake might occur or how large it might be. Thus, the key advice remains the same i.e. be prepared for an earthquake by maintaining a store of water, food, torches and batteries; know what to do when an earthquake occurs (duck under a sturdy structure such as a strong table, cover your head and hold on); and prepare a plan for how you will contact your loved ones after the earthquake. Fig. 6: Distribution of aftershocks in terms of distance from Tokyo (source: CPP geophysics: Further information Updates on the information presented here will appear on Professor Petley s blog:

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