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Japan earthquake and tsunami

14 Mar 2011

Tsunami Wave Height Model Shows Pacific-Wide Impact

On Friday 03 March 2011, at 14:46 local time (05:46 UK) an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 (some agencies including Japan's meteorological agency has proposed updating the magnitude of the earthquake to 9.0 14/03/11) struck near the east coast of Honshu, Japan approximately 230 miles north of Tokyo.

The earthquake triggered a huge tsunami which swept inland close to the city of Sendai, destroying all in its wake. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, whilst thousands have been killed or made homeless and a major relief operation is underway in the country. The quake has also caused damage to several of Japan’s nuclear power stations, several of which are still unsure of their situation (14/03/11).

Geography and geology

The earthquake occurred on the subduction zone along two different tectonic plates, the Pacific plate to the east and the North American plate to the west. The earthquake is thought to have moved Japan’s coastline approximately 4m (13ft) to the east in some places, as well as shifting the Earth on its axis.

Being prepared

Japan is a country that is well prepared for tectonic activity. Buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes. Many people reported seeing skyscrapers ‘sway’ in Tokyo on Friday, a feature which allows them to move with the tremors and not crack or collapse. Earthquake drills occur regularly to ensure people know what to do in a quake. Compared to the building damage that occurred in Christchurch in the February earthquake, Japan’s buildings remained remarkably intact following the extensive quake.

It was the resulting tsunami that has caused the most widespread destruction and devastation. Japan has a tsunami warning system in place which triggers an alarm to warn people of a potential wave, and while this will undoubtedly have saved many people as it alerted people to move to higher land, the magnitude and speed of the wave was just too great for many.

Tsunami video footage:

The impacts

Satellite images: before and after

Economic impact

The economic impact upon Japan will be huge as the country tries to recover and rebuild. The earthquake has had direct and indirect impacts on the economy, from destroying the actual industries and basic infrastructure needed to run those industries, to the impacts on Japan’s presence in the global economy as share prices fall on stock markets.

Manufacturing industries have been destroyed; goods ready for export around the world have been destroyed; the insurance claims will cost billions and the current energy supply situation due to the nuclear power plant shutdowns is affecting the entire country, not just those areas directly affected. The country is planning blackouts to reduce energy consumption which in turn will affect manufacturing and could have knock-on effects on for global manufacturing when parts made in Japan will no longer be available for export. The north-east of Japan, where there is the most devastation, is home to many of the country's car part makers, supplying carmakers not just nearby but across the world, so having an impact globally.

The nuclear situation

Japan is a resource-poor country, i.e. they have little or no fossil fuel reserves which they can generate electricity, so nearly one quarter of its energy is generated through nuclear power. Being located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, having nuclear power stations was always going to be risky, but Japan has very tight emergency procedures in place to shut down power plants and minimise the risk. Friday’s earthquake has severely damaged several of the stations though and the country is currently (16/03/11) facing a potentially dangerous nuclear catastrophe, with increased radiation levels creating mass evacuations.

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