Last Thursday during my morning commute from Southern Maryland into downtown D.C., my carpool had to take an alternate route due to what the radio station was calling a “mudslide.” I found this news to be rather surprising; I was told that mud covered part of the main road I take to work, leaving only one lane open for traffic. Apparently part of the steep embankment that lines the road had slid down the hillside due to extreme saturation from the large quantities of rain the D.C. area has experienced recently. After this clarification, I was ever so glad that our driver had decided to take a route far away from the Potomac River and the aforementioned embankment. Unfortunately, the incident made me half-an-hour late to work.
This Nebraska girl had not had any close encounters with mudslides prior to that one minor event, which really did not affect me other than a 30-minute delay. The very next day, March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake (the largest quake in Japan in recorded history according to U.S. Geologic Survey records, which date back to 1900) occurred off the northern coast of Japan. The massive quake was followed by scores of aftershocks and tsunami waves. It was a major disaster that affected millions of people and made my mudslide experience seem like a walk in the park.
The earthquake struck not far from Honshu, Japan at 2:46PM local time
(12:46AM EST). Collapsing buildings, fires, walls of water up to 30 feet
in height, power outages, mass transit disruptions, and mass chaos in
general ensued. By mid-afternoon Friday (EST), 151 people were dead, 539
injured, and 351 were missing according to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.
By Monday afternoon, 1,897 people were confirmed dead and over 3,000
were missing, according to CNN. The U.S. National Weather Service issued
tsunami warnings for a minimum of 50 countries and territories soon
after the initial event. Hours later, waves began coming ashore across
the Pacific in Hawaii and along the West Coast of the United States. Wave heights in Hawaii were up to almost 7 feet and in Alaska
and California fluctuated from less than a foot tall to over 8 feet in
Crescent City, CA.
Tsunamis are something that I can hardly fathom. This might be a result of the fact that I have lived thousands of miles from an ocean
(or any large body of water) for pretty much my entire life until now,
and even D.C. is not exactly ocean-side. So for my own benefit, and hopefully yours as well, here is a basic rundown of how and why earthquakes
Japan is located within the region known as the “Ring of Fire” due to
the seismic activity that frequently occurs where tectonic plates are
constantly interacting. When one tectonic plate subducts under another,
one plate is lifted up as the other is shoved beneath it. The uplifted
plate acts like an enormous paddle, transferring its energy to the
water. On Friday, the Pacific plate was shoved underneath the North
American plate (where the island of Japan is located) at the Japan
Trench. The seafloor was pushed away from Japan, causing water to
displace and generate waves.
It should be noted that not all seafloor earthquakes cause tsunamis; if
the earthquake occurs deep below the sea floor or the plates move in
such a way that the “paddle effect” is minimal, then a tsunami is
unlikely to form. Tsunamis can also be caused by volcanic eruptions,
landslides, and underwater detonations.
Mother Nature is an awe-inspiring force that humans are still in the
process of understanding. Because of Japan’s location in the Ring of
Fire and the frequent occurrence of earthquakes in this area, the
country was relatively well-prepared compared with other countries where recent
catastrophic quakes have taken place, such as Haiti (also located on a fault line, but not subject to nearly as many quakes as Japan). In
Nebraska we experience tornadoes quite frequently and we know what to do
when one occurs: We go to the basement with flashlights,
blankets, and enough food to last a half-day or so.
are much the same way with earthquakes. Because it is so much a part of
their culture, they have even built buildings that can sustain intense
shaking. But perhaps they were not as prepared for the tsunami waves as they could have been.
There are still many questions to be answered. What
triggered the March 11th quake? How can scientists better predict
earthquakes and tsunamis in the future? How will this event affect
And from your own perspective: What natural disasters are common
in your region? How do people react when one occurs?
If you are looking for the latest news on this unfolding disaster, we here at National Geographic have created a site specifically for this purpose. It includes links to current articles, mapping resources, classroom activities, and other blogs to help you better understand what is happening. I encourage you to check it out!
Becky for My Wonderful World