The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011, which occurred near the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan, resulted from thrust faulting on or near the subduction zone plate boundary between the Pacific and North America plates.
At the latitude of this earthquake, the Pacific plate moves approximately westwards with respect to the North America plate at a rate of 83 mm/yr, and begins its westward descent beneath Japan at the Japan Trench. Note that some authors divide this region into several microplates that together define the relative motions between the larger Pacific, North America and Eurasia plates; these include the Okhotsk and Amur microplates that are respectively part of North America and Eurasia.
The location, depth, and focal mechanism of the March 11 earthquake are consistent with the event having occurred on the subduction zone plate boundary. Modeling of the rupture of this earthquake indicate that the fault moved upwards of 30-40 m, and slipped over an area approximately 300 km long (along-strike) by 150 km wide (in the down-dip direction). The rupture zone is roughly centered on the earthquake epicenter along-strike, while peak slips were up-dip of the hypocenter, towards the Japan Trench axis.
The March 11 earthquake was preceded by a series of large foreshocks over the previous two days, beginning on March 9th with a M 7.2 event approximately 40 km from the epicenter of the March 11 earthquake, and continuing with another three earthquakes greater than M 6 on the same day.
The Japan Trench subduction zone has hosted nine events of magnitude 7 or greater since 1973.
The largest of these, a M 7.8 earthquake approximately 260 km to the north of the March 11 epicenter, caused 3 fatalities and almost 700 injuries in December 1994.
In June of 1978, a M 7.7 earthquake 35 km to the southwest of the March 11 epicenter caused 22 fatalities and over 400 injuries.
Large offshore earthquakes have occurred in the same subduction zone in 1611, 1896 and 1933 that each produced devastating tsunami waves on the Sanriku coast of Pacific NE Japan.
That coastline is particularly vulnerable to tsunami waves because it has many deep coastal embayments that amplify tsunami waves and cause great wave inundations.
[youtube Lo5uH1UJF4A NOAA animation of the Tsunami waves, Sendai earthquake March 11, 2011]
The M 7.6 subduction earthquake of 1896 created tsunami waves as high 38 m and a reported death toll of 27,000.
The M 8.6 earthquake of March 2, 1933 produced tsunami waves as high as 29 m on the Sanriku coast and caused more than 3000 fatalities. Unlike the recent magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the 1933 earthquake did not occur as the result of thrust faulting on the subduction-zone plate interface, but rather within the Pacific plate just seaward of the Japan Trench.
The March 11, 2011 earthquake far surpassed other post-1900 plate-boundary thrust-fault earthquakes in the southern Japan Trench, none of which attained M8.
A predecessor may have occurred on July 13, 869, when the Sendai area was swept by a large tsunami that Japanese scientists have identified from written records and a sand sheet.
Continuing readjustments of stress and associated aftershocks are expected in the region of this earthquake. The exact location and timing of future aftershocks cannot be specified. Numbers of aftershocks will continue to be highest on and near to fault-segments on which rupture occurred at the time of the main-shock. The frequency of aftershocks will tend to decrease with elapsed time from the time of the main shock, but the general decrease of activity may be punctuated by episodes of higher aftershock activity.
Beyond the ongoing aftershock sequence, the USGS does not believe that the earthquakes in Japan have significantly raised the probability of future major earthquakes.
While the probability of future large earthquakes far from northern Honshu has not increased, neither has it decreased and large earthquakes will continue to occur just as we have observed in the past.
Text : courtesy USGS