Seismicity of the Sanriku coast

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The seismicity of the Sanriku coast identifies and describes the seismic activity of an area of Japan. Seismicity refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time; the Sanriku coast (三陸海岸, Sanriku kaigan) is a descriptive term referring to the coastal areas of the former provinces of Rikuō in Aomori, Rikuchū in Aomori, and Rikuzen in Miyagi.[1]

The irregular ria coastline and its many bays tend to amplify the destructiveness of tsunami waves which reach the shores of Sanriku,[2] as demonstrated in the damage caused by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.


The Sanriku coast has a well-documented history of significant seismic activity. A major earthquake in the 19th century caused more than 20,000 deaths, and another in the 20th century caused thousands more; the recurrence of major seismic activity continues in the 21st century.


There is geological evidence,[3] uncovered after the latest tsunami event of 2011, of six catastrophic tsunamis hitting the Sanriku coast within 6000 years. Among them are:

19th century[edit]

Some 22,000 people were killed in the Meiji Sanriku earthquake of 1896. Most of the deaths were caused by tsunami; the disaster struck at 8:06am on the morning of August 31. The epicenter was determined to have been located at 39.5 Latitude/140.6 Longitude, but no Richter Scale magnitude can be assessed on the basis of available data.[4]

20th century[edit]

Major seismic activity on the Sanriku coast during the 20th century includes:

21st century[edit]

Significant seismic events which devastated Sanriku coastal communities in the 21st century include:

  • 2003 Miyagi earthquakes. There were two major earthquakes in 2003 in Miyagi Prefecture; the first quake in May injured 171 and caused $97.3 million in damages.[8] Another quake in July injured 676. More than 11,000 buildings were affected, causing an estimated $195.4 million in damages.[9]
  • 2005 Miyagi earthquake. The seismic event was originally recorded by the United States Geological Survey as a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on the Moment magnitude scale, but the Japan Meteorological Agency called it a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. The slippage in the seabed subduction zone was located about 330 miles (530 kilometres) east-northeast of Tokyo about 24 miles (39 kilometres) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean; the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami warning almost immediately; and warnings were also issued for the northwest coast of the United States
  • 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. In March 2011, the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck off the Sanriku coast, setting off a 10 metres (33 feet) tsunami; the 9.0-magnitude quake near Tohoku was comparable in scale to undersea seismic events near Indonesia in 2004 (3rd largest on record) and near Chile in 2010 (6th largest).[10] It caused 15,889 deaths, 6,152 injured, and 2,609 people missing across twenty prefectures, with an estimated $235 billion in property damage.

Three of the top six quakes ever recorded worldwide, including the 2011 Tōhoku quake, appear to be clustered in a 6.2-year span between 2004 and 2011; however, experts construe this as a statistical anomaly or random chance.[10][11]

The phenomenon of comparably large quakes that happen on the same or neighbouring faults within months of each other—for example, the Miyagi quakes in 2003—can be explained by a sound geological mechanism; this does not fully demonstrate a relationship between events separated by longer periods and greater distances.[11]

Seismic mechanisms[edit]

Earthquakes occur where the Pacific Plate meets the plate beneath northern Honshu in a subduction zone;[12] the Pacific plate, which moves at a rate of 8 to 9 cm (3.1 to 3.5 in) per year, dips under Honshu's underlying plate releasing large amounts of energy. This motion pulls the upper plate down until the stress builds up enough to cause a seismic event.

Quakes of large magnitudes in the Sanriku region can have a rupture length of hundreds of kilometers; and this generally requires a long, relatively straight fault surface. However, the plate boundary and subduction zone in this area is not very straight;[13] the "epicentral region" of an earthquake is defined as an elliptical area which encompasses the location of highest felt intensity of an earthquake. This term is used for identifying the likely epicenter for earthquakes and tsunami in the history of the Sanriku coat.

The hypocentral region of Sanriku coastal earthquakes can occur in locations extending from offshore Aomori Prefecture to offshore Ibaraki Prefecture.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saw-tooth Sanriku Coastline (三陸リアス式海岸, Sanriku-riasushiki-kaigan) at Nippon-Kichi
  2. ^ Satake, Kenji (2005). Tsunamis: Case Studies and Recent Developments. Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research (Book 23). Springer. p. 99. ISBN 978-1402033261.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-08-24. Retrieved 2011-09-04. CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Online "NOAA/Japan: Significant Earthquake Database," U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC)
  5. ^ USGS. "Significant Earthquakes of the World 1978". Archived from the original on 23 January 2010. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  6. ^ Sidle, R.C. et al. (1985). Hillslope stability and land use, pp. 1–9., p. 1, at Google Books
  7. ^ Nakayama and Takeo. "Slip history of the 1994 Sanriku-Haruka-Oki, Japan, earthquake deduced from strong-motion data," Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 87, No. 4, p. 918.
  8. ^ Disaster Control Research Center, Tohoku University: May 26, 2003 Miyagi-Oki earthquake Archived September 7, 2012, at
  9. ^ Disaster Control Research Center: July 26, 2003 Northern Miyagi earthquake Archived August 4, 2012, at
  10. ^ a b Pappas, Stephanie. "Sumatra, Japan, Chile: Are Earthquakes Getting Worse?" LiveScience, 11 March 2011.
  11. ^ a b Brahic, Catherine. "The megaquake connection: Are huge earthquakes linked?" New Scientist (UK), 16 March 2011.
  12. ^ Sample, Ian. "Japan earthquake and tsunami: what happened and why," The Guardian (UK). 11 March 2011; retrieved 14 Mar 2011
  13. ^ Maugh, Thomas H. "Size of Japan's quake surprises seismologists," Los Angeles Times (US). 11 March 2011; retrieved 11 Mar 2011


  • Sidle, R.C.; Pearce, A.J.; O'Loughlin, C.L. (1985) Hillslope stability and land use. Washington, D.C.: American Geophysical Union. ISBN 978-0-87590-315-6

External links[edit]