The Great Tohoku Quake of March 2011

The day after the great M 9.0 Tohoku quake near Honshu, Japan, on 3/11/2011, CNN ran an article with the headline "Quake moved Japan coast 8 feet, shifted Earth's axis" (it was likely based upon this report out of Caltech the day before). The claim seemed too remarkable to be true, and I wrote to a few seismologist/geologist friends for their take on it. A friend at IRIS sent me to the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, and I searched around for more emerging information.

It turns out that entire island did not move 8 feet, but near the epicenter the movement and deformations of the island and seafloor were even more astounding than the "8 foot" claim.
I've gathered a number of maps, charts, and images pertinent to the quake and put them in a single Google Earth file (download by clicking the link). The links above, and many more, are in the Google Earth file.

Here are some of the truly incredible things that happened during the quake
  • The northeastern shore of the island near the epicenter moved eastward more than 4m during the quake....yes! GPS measurements reveal it! The western part of the island moved eastward by somewhat less than a meter....So part of northern Japan (near the epicenter) is now some 3+m wider than it was prior to the quake! (turn on the japan-slip overlay in the file I sent). I'm assuming that there was significant compressional stress built up in the island, and the land expanded eastward as that stress was released during the quake.
  • The motion along the boundary between the subducted Pacific Plate and the overriding Okhotsk Plate* on was on the order of 24m at the epicenter! (turn on the japan-mainshock-slip overlay in the file I sent). Apparently almost all of the motion was accommodated by the overriding plate moving eastward and up, while the Pacific Plate hardly moved. *(The Okhotsk Plate is part of the larger North American Plate).
  • The upward movement of the plate raised the level of the seafloor just west of the trench an astounding 4.5+m, and created a basin 2+m deep off the shore (turn on the japan-uplift-and-subsidence overlay in the file I sent). The subsidence of the seafloor lowered the island by about 1m along the shore there (which would have the effect of moving the shoreline inland, but not the rocks under it). I don't know this for a fact, but it seems like a 5m rise in the seafloor and a simultaneous lowering of the coastline would have added signficantly to the damage caused by the tsunami.

And here's something I noticed as I looked over these maps. Bring the japan-mainshock-slip overlay to the top of the 3D display by turning it off, and then on again. The dotted isolines are the depth to the interface between the overriding Okhotsk Plate and the subducted Pacific Plate seafloor.

In the Layers panel in the GE sidebar, expand the Gallery folder and turn on Volcanoes.

Now, notice where the volcanoes are relative to the depth of the plate boundary...Seems like the generation of magma that makes it to the surface begins at about 100km depth..... I drew a profile across the area, and collected the following data to make the annotated chart.

Please direct comments to Steve Kluge
at Resources for GeoScience Education