Tokyo 1923
Japan is riddled with faults and is located at the junction of four tectonic plates. In the last 75 years, the Japanese archipelago or areas immediately offshore have experienced five earthquakes measuring more than eight on the Richter scale; and 17 measuring more than seven on the Richter scale. It is unusual for a year to go by without three or four earthquakes measuring 6.0 or more.

Japan accounts for about 20 percent of the earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater on the Richter scale. Each day about 1,000 tremors that can be felt are produced in Japan. More than 130,000 quakes were logged in Japan in 2005. Each year nearly ten percent of the energy released in the world in earthquakes is centered around Japan. In the last century Japan has experienced 25 destructive earthquakes. In some places small earthquakes are felt on a weekly and even daily basis. One journalist wrote that "Japan is always living on the edge of one disaster or another."

The Japanese seismic scale is slightly different from the Richter scale used in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The Japanese scale has maximum intensity of 7 and measures earthquake based on the amount of damage caused. The destructive Kobe earthquake in 1995 measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and 7 on the Japanese scale.

For an earthquake to be regarded as major enough to get a name it must destroy at least 100 houses, and measure more than 7 on the Richter scale or have an intensity of more than 5 on the Japanese scale.

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center ; Wikipedia article on Earthquakes Wikipedia ; Earthquake severity ; USGS Earthquake Frequently Asked Questions ; Collection of Images from Historic Earthquakes Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, Jan Kozak Collection ; World Earthquake Map ; Most Recent Earthquakes ; Interactive Earthquake Guide ; USGS Earthquakes for Kids ; Earthquake Preparedness and Safety Surviving an Earthquake ; Earthquake Pamphlet ; Earthquake Preparedness Guide ; Earthquake Safety Site ;

Earthquake Information for Japan Earthquake Information from Japan Meteorological Agency ; F-Net Broadband Seismography Network ; USGS Japan Earthquake Information ; Tectonics and Volcanos of Japan ; MCEER Earthquake Engineering on Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century ; Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century ; Sesimic Hazard Map ; Earthquake Density Map ; Seismicity Map ; Blogs About Japanese Earthquakes ; Geological Maps ; Earthquake Engineering and Disaster Prevention: Disaster Prevention Research Institute, University of Kyoto ; Japan Association of Earthquake Engineering ; Earthquake Preparedness in Japan Earthquake Preparedness Survey ;U.S. Embassy Disaster Preparedness Checklist ; U.K. Embassy on Earthquake Preparedness v ; Report on Fastening Furniture pdf file ;Earthquake Preparedness Guide ;

Earthquake Research in Japan: Headquarters of Earthquake Research Promotion ; Active Fault Research Center ; Institute of Geology and Geoinformation ; Tokai Earthquake Prediction from Japan Meteorological Agency ;Research Center for Earthquake Prediction, University of Kyoto ; Earthquake Prediction Research Center, Tokyo University ; Earthquake and Science Museums Shinagawa City Disaster Prevention site ; Earthquake Museum (Kita Ward, near the Nishigahara Station on the Naboku subway line), Tokyo Essentials ; Honjo Life Safety Learning Center (Sumida Ward) simulates an earthquake and fire in a 3-D theater. There is also a room that simulates a storm with wind sped of 30 meters per second. Tokyo City PDF file

Recent Earthquakes in Japan : USGS Last Earthquake in Japan ; Recent Earthquakes ; Info for the Previous Week ; Major Earthquakes in Japan Wikipedia List of Earthquakes in Japan Wikipedia ; USGS Historic Earthquakes ;Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century ; 1923 Tokyo Earthquake: 1923 Tokyo Earthquake Images ; Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 ; 1923 Tokyo Earthquake Photo Gallery ; Earthquake Pictures: Earthquake Image Archive ; BBC Pictures of 2007 Niigata Earthquake BBC Pictures of 2007 Niigata Earthquake ; Kobe Earthquake Site ;

Earthquake Mythology in Japan

According to Japanese mythology earthquakes are caused by the thrashing movement of namazu (giant catfish), who has the power to generate tremors on both land and sea. One way to prevent earthquakes, the Japanese believe, is to knock the fish on the head with a gourd. After a devastating earthquake in the 1850s many people in Japan put up pictures of a KO'd catfish on the doors of their house for protection.

The first earthquake, the Japanese Creation Myth goes, occurred after the Goddess Susanowo came out of her cave to bring light to the Earth. The eight million dancing deities of nature were so enchanted by her presence that they shook the earth with their exclamations of happiness.

Earthquake Geology

An earthquake is a shaking of the ground. It occurs when large masses of rock suddenly change position. Earthquakes and tremors (small earthquakes) are occurring somewhere around the globe all the time. Some cause a little shaking and people barely know what's going on. Other cause catastrophic damage.

Earthquakes killed 1.8 million worldwide between 1900 and 2005. Hundreds of thousands have died in single events. No other natural events have caused as much destruction in human history and no other events occur with such suddenness and capriciousness. They only thing that ranks with them are catastrophic volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The former occur with much less frequency and are easier to predict than earthquakes. The latter are generally caused by earthquakes. If anything the destructive power of earthquakes increases as time goes buy as the number of people living in earthquake-prone areas increase even as technology to help them improves.

Earthquakes usually occur on faults, massive cracks or fractures that usually are located around places that tectonic plates meet. The hypocenter or focus is the center of the energy of an earthquake, or where the earthquake originates below the surface of the earth. The epicenter is point in the earth's surface directly above the hypocenter.

Seismic Waves

The energy of an earthquake is emitted in the form of shock (seismic) waves. There are two kinds of seismic waves: interior ones, which travel through the earth; and surface ones, which travel along the surface. Surface waves are the most damaging to humans.

Seismic waves that affect the surface are divided into P-waves and S-waves. P-waves, or primary waves, are faster and reach the surface first. They alternately compress and expand the rock which they pass through but pack relatively little energy. S-waves, or secondary waves, come later and move particles and rock from side to side perpendicular to the direction they are traveling. They are much stronger and destructive and can produce intense vibrations that rip buildings off their foundations, churn soils into molasses and cause roofs to fall on people.

Both P and S waves produce heaving and rolling surface waves, which are usually most intense along the ruptured fault and weaken as they move away from the epicenter. The seismic echos of these waves that move through the earth and along the surface. can picked up by instruments around the globe. Scientists can locate the hypocenter and epicenter of a given earthquake by comparing the arrival times of the P-waves and S-waves received at different seismic stations in different locations.

Causes of Earthquakes

Most earthquakes occur along cracks in the earth called faults. Some fault are nice neat lines that are visible from planes and outer space. Other are more complex, resembling a shattered or cracked window. Faults visible from the sky easy to locate. Others are less obvious and require some defective work to locate.

The heaviest concentrations of faults are found in places where tectonic plates meet. Along major faults, tectonic plates moves at rate of about eight or nine feet a century, or 1.3 inches a year, which is roughly about the same speed as fingernail growth.

If the movement of tectonic plates or block of earth along faults was steady and smooth earthquakes would not occur. But that is not what happens. Friction keeps the plates together until enough pressure builds up to cause the plates to suddenly lurch. When this happens energy that causes earthquakes is released.

If a small segment of a tectonic plate moves an earthquake with a magnitude of less than 6 occurs. When a large segment, or several small segments rupture, a major earthquake over 7 often occurs. Similar process are taking place with blocks of earth along smaller fault in the general area of where the tectonic plates meet.

Many earthquakes occur along subduction zone, where oceanic plates meet continental plates. Here the denser ocean plate pushes beneath the continental plate. The constant movement and pressure causes earthquakes. Earthquakes also occur along extension zones, where the crust is stretched by subduction. They have also been caused by volcanic eruptions, atomic bob blasts and even dynamite blasted from geological exploration.

For centuries scholars and thinkers have speculated about their causes and mechanisms of earthquakes. Aristotle likened them to the Earth passing gas while the Japanese speculated they were caused by a giant fish wriggling under the Earth’s surface.

tectonic plates

Causes of Earthquakes in Japan

The four major plates that merge under Japan are: 1) the Eurasian Plate, 2) the Philippine Sea Plate, 3) the Pacific Plate and 4) the North American Plate. Most earthquakes occur along two plate boundaries near Japan's Pacific coast, where the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate meet and the Eurasian Plate and Pacific Plate collide.

Three plates move in three directions three miles beneath the streets of Tokyo. The Pacific Plate is the fastest moving. It subducts about four inches a year below the North American Plate and the Philippine Plate. The stress is taken up by strong shallow earthquakes off the east coast of Japan.

The tectonic makeup of Tokyo and surrounding areas is complicated, with two ocean plates subducting below a land plate on which the Japanese archipelago is located. There have been many earthquakes in this area, as both plate-boundary quakes, which are caused by friction between the plates, and inland quakes, which are caused by faults in the plates, can occur.

There are two main types of earthquakes that strike Japan: ocean trench ones, which are caused by oceanic plates pushing down on or moving under land plates; and inland quakes, which occur along fault lines between land plates.

Earthquakes along Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate are regarded as particularly dangerous because lots of people live there and a lot of friction build up as the Philippine Sea Plate slides at a rate of 5 millimeters a year under the Eurasian Plate. This boundary passes directly under Shizuoka before making a U-turn at Mt. Fuji and returning to the sea at Sagami Bay off Yokohama, the epicenter of the great 1923 quake.

Many earthquakes that affect Japan originate far out at sea with their epicenters deep under the ocean floor. Others occur deep under the earth’s crust. The Japan Trench, a deep furrow in the sea floor running north to south just off the coast of Japan, is where two plates come together, one sliding beneath the other. The Pacific Plate is moving toward Japan at about 3 ½ inches a year. Its leading edge is crammed under Japan, lifting the country higher. Over time the strain builds until it is released in an earthquake.

Types of Earthquakes

A strike-slip, or transform, fault earthquake is a sudden lateral movement of one rock mass against another at fault in response to plate tectonic forces. During a large earthquake of this sort the rock masses on either side a fault can lurch 10 feet or more in opposite directions. Strike-slip faults are where blocks of earth slide past each other laterally. The plates lock together as pressure builds until the plates surge past each other and cause an earthquake.

A reverse fault earthquake is caused by the compression of a subduction zone. Thrust faults occur where blocks of earth collide at an angle and one block shifts upward. A normal fault earthquake is caused by the normal extension of a crustal extension where plates pull apart.

Aftershocks are earthquakes that occur after a major earthquake. They complete the crustal movement initiated by the original earthquake and are usually much smaller than the original earthquake but that is not always the case. Some are as powerful or almost powerful as the original. Aftershocks can occur minutes, hours, days and even years after original.

Megathrust earthquake are destructive earthquakes that occur when two plates collide. Earthquakes of this type can reach a level of 9 or more on the Richter scale while the largest earthquakes that occur on faults like the San Andreas fault can only reach a level of 8 on the Richter scale. The earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and the 9.2 earthquake in Alaska in 1964 were a megathrust earthquake Subduction faults are usually angled at about 10 to 15 percent. Faults like San Andreas fault are roughly vertical. There is a much larger locked area with subduction zones, creating much more energy when the plates unlock

Measuring Earthquakes

Earthquakes are measured using the Richter scale, named after the American geologist Charles Richter (1900-1985), who invented the scale. The Richter scale is base-10 logarithmic. Earthquakes receive a rating of between 0 to 10. Each whole number increase represents a tenfold increase in ground movement. Thus a 7.0 scale earthquake is ten times stronger than a 6.0 one.

Earthquakes measuring three or four on the Richter scale can be felt. Ones measuring five can cause some damage. Those rating more than six can be destructive. Those measuring more than 7 can cause great damage and many death. Earthquakes above eight are often catastrophic. The most powerful earthquakes ever recorded measured 9 and above. No 10 earthquake has ever been recorded. The destructive power of an earthquake often has more to do with where it occurs than how strong it is.

The magnitude and intensity of earthquakes are measured with a devise called a seismograph, which records the peaks of the seismic waves. A seismograph consist of a stylus on a pendulum and a rotating drum. During an earthquake the drum moves up and down while the stylus on the pendulum remains stable.

There are 140 stations in 89 countries checking for earthquakes. The data is sifted through by 268 experts who look for secret nuclear tests as well as earthquakes. The network was set up in the 1990s and reached full global coverage in 2004. The number of stations is expect to reach 321 by 2010. The budget is $105 million. The clearing house for the data is in Vienna, where not coincidently the main United Nations nuclear watchdog agency is located.

Vibrations from earthquake and nuclear tests can be picked very far away. The instruments use to measure them are so sensitive they picked up the break up of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 and the undersea collapse of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000. The network that looks for nuclear explosions has 170 stations that detect underground shock waves, 11 that scan for undersea explosions as well 80 that sniff the air for radioactivity and 60 that listen for loud sounds in the atmosphere. In May 1998, shock waves from India’s nuclear test was picked up at 11 stations.

Measuring Earthquakes in Japan

The Japanese seismic scale is slightly different from the Richter scale used in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The Japanese scale has maximum intensity of 7 and measures earthquake based on the amount of damage caused. The destructive Kobe earthquake in 1995 measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and 7 on the Japanese scale.

Earthquake intensity levels used to be determined based simply on the senses of officials at observatories and the level of destruction they caused. After 1996, however, they have been calculated automatically, based on data collected from observation points across the nation.

Currently, there are about 4,000 observation points. However, the level of tremors varies depending on the ground underneath the different facilities and the local terrain. As a result, agency officials sometimes conduct field surveys after they receive information about damage caused by a quake. "By international standards, Japan has a high density of observation points. But it's still difficult to precisely assess all tremors," Koji Nakamura, assistant section head of the Japan’s Meteorological Agency’s Earthquake and Tsunami Observations Division, told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Japanese Seismic Intensity Scale

Seismic intensity refers to the extent to which the shock of an earthquake can be felt. The Japan Meteorological Agency measures the intensity of each temblor and makes the results available to the public. An intensity of 7 is the most violent shock measured by the agency. An earthquake registering that level of intensity could topple most unsecured furniture. It also could cause some reinforced concrete buildings that lack strong earthquake resistance to collapse. The agency has recorded an intensity of 7 only in three quakes--the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake of 2004 and Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 10, 2012]

There was a time when the agency's officials determined seismic intensity based on bodily sensations they experienced as well as the extent of damage to buildings. But this was changed in 1996, following the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Since then, seismic intensity meters have been used to measure a quake's intensity.In the past, the agency's seismic intensity scale comprised eight different levels, from 0 to 7. In 1996, however, the agency adopted a 10-level scale, dividing levels 5 and 6 into two sublevels--"upper" and "lower."

There are serious concerns about an earthquake with an intensity of 7 striking Tokyo and its neighboring areas. The government has anticipated 18 patterns of seismic activity in the Tokyo metropolitan area. These include one with a focus in the northern part of Tokyo Bay. Seismic studies have shown that the anticipated quake could originate from an underground location closer than previously predicted. This means areas adjacent to Tokyo Bay could be struck by a quake of intensity level 7.

Earthquake Energy

Richter scale measurement
The energy released by a 6.7 earthquake is roughly equal the energy released by a one megaton hydrogen bomb. Sometimes when scientists looking for secret nuclear tests pick up something they are not sure whether it is a nuclear explosion or an earthquake. One way they can tell is by carefully examining the shock waves recorded on a seismograph. A magnitude 6.7. earthquake begins gently and suddenly becomes more violent. A nuclear explosion of similar magnitude begins with a sharp spike, followed by aftershocks.

Large earthquakes usually create a visible crack or a displacement of surface rocks and soil and cause the fault to shift at a rate of about two miles per second. The San Francisco earthquake in 1906, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, caused movement along 270-mile section of fault that ranged from 6 feet to 16 feet.

Shock waves from earthquakes travel farther in places where the crust is made of old rock, but fortunately these are the places where earthquake are least likely to happen. In areas of new crust generation where earthquakes occur more frequently there are larger amounts of sand, clay and gravel. Shock waves don’t travel as far in these materials but they do more damage by concentrating their forces and causing a lot of shaking.

Earthquakes and Geology

Earthquakes originate below the surface of the earth in places called nucleation sites. Shallow earthquakes are more likely to cause extensive damage than deep ones. Most damaging earthquakes have a hypocenter that is less than six miles below the surface. Although deep quakes usually cause less catastrophic damage to a specific area than a shallower ones they often cause damage over a broader area.

In places where there has been a lot of tectonic activity---where rocks have been folded and mix---earthquake waves radiate outward inefficiently and thus earthquakes tend be very destructive near their epicenters but not far way from it. Earthquakes at the center of plates are often more destructive because the rock has not been folded and mixed so much and is more uniform and conducive to transporting waves over long distances.

Rock and soil types can make a big difference in an earthquake. Bedrock offers a measure of stability. It helps to dampen the shaking from a quake. Sediment and loose soils on the other hand amplify the shaking. In a given earthquake the shaking can be ten times stronger in loose soil than it is over bedrock.

Many earthquakes form rising and falling bumps in the soil and sediments called oscillations that can cause sever damage. On reclaimed land or soil saturated with water, the soil can liquify and begin to flow and shake with even more extreme violence. This occurs because during intense shaking solid particles in soft muds, silts and wet land move downward, while water shoots up at great pressure.

Tokyo 1923

Earthquake Damage

Earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 on the Richter scale strike 20 times a year somewhere in the world. But these are not necessarily the most destructive earthquakes. The biggest factor in determining earthquake damage and destruction is location, location and location. Earthquakes that strike populated area are going to cause more death and destruction than ones that occur in unpopulated areas.

Some of the most damaging and deadly earthquakes---the one that killed 250,000 people in Tangshen China and the ones in Lisbon and Missouri---occurred is places where no one though a major earthquake would happen and the victims were caught totally unprepared.

Earthquake damage is also often more of a matter of architecture and affluence than the strength of the earthquake. In developing countries the houses are often shoddily built. In the worst case they are made of stones held together with weak mortar and topple easy, crushing people when they do. That is why a 6.0 earthquake in Armenia could kill 26,000 people and a 7.1 one in San Francisco could kill 62.

The damage from an earthquake is often very spotty. Neighborhoods that have been totally destroyed often six next to ones that look untouched. The reason depends on a number of factors including construction methods, maintenance, soil stability, fault lines in the underlying rock, and location of gas lines.

Some deaths are attributed directly to the earthquake. Many more often die in mudslides, landslides, and tsunamis generated by the quake or in the harsh conditions that follow it. Landslides block roads, leaving thousands with food and shelter. Disease spread; no medical help is available.

Fires often cause the most damage. Sometimes the fires are so hot the can melt steel and ignite fires 40 meters away. Many start when stoves topple over or gas lines break. Often the fires burn out of control because water main are broken and not enough people can be mobilized to put them out.

Earthquake Liquefaction

Liquefaction is a phenomenon where pockets of stable sand underground are shaken by an earthquake and mixed with groundwater. As a result, the soil becomes sludgy and unstable. In some cases, muddy water reaches the surface. Because the ground foundation suddenly becomes soft, buildings may sink or tilt. Tilted houses, rippled pavement, broken pipes are all problems associated with liquefaction. [Source: Akio Oikawa and Shogo Hara, Yomiuri Shimbun , October 18, 2012]

Liquefaction pushes up manholes and wrecking homes and roads and leaves houses and power poles tilting. Watery sand can gush up from the ground during the earthquake formed piles up to 30 centimeters deep. Ground subsidence of up to 50 centimeters, which destroyed underground water and sewerage pipes. If the shaking from an earthquake continues for a long time, the ground where the liquefaction is most severe can keep shaking even after liquefaction occurrs, expanding the scope of damage.

Liquefaction occurs when saturated sandy ground, such as that found in reclaimed land and marshes, is loosened by a strong earthquake. The unconsolidated sand becomes like muddy water. This muddy water gushes up through cracks and opening in sidewalks and roads, and then drains away to leave the sand on the ground. Foundations can be fixed by jacking up a house and doing the repairs. But with the lingering threat of aftershocks, the land could be vulnerable to more damage. Leaving a house as it is, however, could leave it beyond salvaging if liquefaction strikes again.

Earthquake Damage and Buildings

leaning building at Kobe in 1995 due
to liquification of soil
About 80 percent of all earthquake deaths occur in collapsed building. Many of these would have been avoided if the buildings were properly constructed. One geophysicist told the New York Times, "Buildings kill people not earthquakes."

Structures built on rock suffer high-frequency vibrations that may not topple the building but can cause enough structural faults to make it unsafe. Buildings on softer soils need special braces because the building can resonate with the quake and vibrate part.Buildings on reclaimed land or soil saturated with water are particularly vulnerable because the soil can liquify and shake extremely violently, causing entire building to lean, sink or topple.

Unreinforced buildings sway from side to side and if the earthquake is powerful enough give way and collapse. The joints where H-shaped steel beams are welded to the main pillars are typically the most vulnerable spots of a building. Seismic energy converges on the joints which can crack under the force.

Old wooden houses are shaken off their foundations, causing roofing and unsecured items to topple on residents. High rises are designed to sway. They often remain standing and keep their occupants alive but suffer from broken windows and cracked girders and sometimes have to be torn down.

Mid-rise buildings---especially ones with unreinforced masonry are often the most dangerous places to be. Their rigid walls tend to crack and crumble rather than sway. After a large earthquake many of the welded joints give way under the stress and the building tilts, and sometimes collapse, sometimes killing most of the people inside.

People trapped inside collapsed buildings without food and water or adequate supplies rarely survive under the rubble for more than three or four days. Without water, especially in the summer heat, people are claimed by dehydration. After earthquakes villagers sometimes spend months sleeping in their beds outdoors until the threat passes.

Earthquake Damage and Infrastructure

Kobe 1995
Unprotected electric power lines, waiter mains and gas lines rupture, causing power outages, fires and flooding. Roads and bridges give way as a result of the shaking and swaying. Damage not only causes immediate deaths and casualties but hampers rescue efforts, causing more deaths.

Land line communications are disrupted hampering rescue efforts even more. Hospitals with structural damage and power outages have a hard time maintain a normal functioning level, let alone keeping up with the high numbers of casualties that pour in.

In large cities, subways and trains can become derailed; tunnels and stations can crack, collapse or become flooded. Tunnels are particularly vulnerable where one ground material change into another such as between rock and soil. Damages can be catastrophic if an oil refinery or chemical factory near a populated area explodes or catch fire. Even worse is if a levee system or a dam upstream from a populated area collapses.

Another big hassle is a shortage of toilets.

Supercomputer Earthquake System Used to Predict Earthquake Aftermaths

In January 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: A University of Tokyo research team has developed a system that will use a next-generation supercomputer to simultaneously predict tremors, tsunami and movements in the Earth's crust after a massive earthquake occurs. The team, led by Takuto Maeda, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Center of Integrated Disaster Information Research (CIDIR), has used the new system on a current-generation supercomputer, which almost succeeded in reconstructing the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 31, 2012]

Predictions about tremors, tsunami and crust movements have been made separately in the past. But the system's simultaneous calculations are more likely to predict damage that would have been missed by separate findings, such as how a tsunami might impact an area where the ground level has sunk due to an earthquake. Using the system, the team entered data of the March 11 earthquake, such as its magnitude and location, into the supercomputer. The supercomputer predicted seismic waves would occur throughout the nation within 10 minutes of the earthquake, a massive tsunami hitting coastal areas after about 30 minutes, and the subsiding of the Kanto and Sendai plains.

The system's usability was confirmed by its ability to make predictions that were very close to what occurred in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. But the system was restricted by the processing power of the current-generation supercomputer. A large amount of data must be processed to simultaneously calculate crustal movements and tsunami. Current-generation supercomputers lack sufficient storage capacity to process these calculations, and therefore some data was skipped.

Despite this, the team has further developed the system to predict more accurate damage in anticipation for its use on the nation's next-generation supercomputer, known as K, which has a data storage capacity 100 times greater than the current generation, and will be available in autumn. As the system can be used to predict detailed damage caused by multiple disasters, the team is planning to analyze the effect of the simultaneous occurrence of three big earthquakes known as the Tokai, Tonankai and Nankai earthquakes. Meanwhile, the University of Tokyo's Earthquake Research Institute is planning to develop another system for the K supercomputer from April that will analyze urban damage caused by earthquakes and tsunami, such as the collapse of buildings, and predict how certain regions should be evacuated.

Earthquake Prediction

Earthquakes are more likely to happen in seismically active areas that have not had an earthquake for a while. Geologists can predict with some accuracy that there is certain possibility that an earthquake will occur in a general area within a period of years of decades but can not say with any accuracy when and exactly where it will occur.

As a rule efforts to predict earthquakes have been largely fruitless. It is not known whether they can be predicted. Comets have traditionally been regarded harbingers of earthquakes. Before earthquakes animals have burst out of barns and run out of houses. Some scientists may be due to the fact that they are sensitive to static electricity in the air.

To anticipate, predict and prepare for earthquakes, scientist rely heavily on data from past events. Much of earthquakes forecasting involves taking elaborate maps of fault zones and make forecast of the probability of an earthquakes occurring in a certain place within a certain number of years.

Scientists in California have figured out a way to get a few second warning of an earthquake by detecting fast-moving P-waves before the destructive S-waves arrive. Sixty kilometers away from the epicenter this can translate to a 20 second warning, enough for people to take actions which could save their lives. The Japanese have developed a tremor-detection system that sends out data to the media and other sources once the P-waves have been detected.

A team led Vladimir Kellis-Borko, a geophysicist at UCLA, predicted earthquakes in San Simeoen and Hokkaido Japan in the second half of 2003 looking at chains of minor earthquakes and comparing them with the earthquake history of a specific area. By examining clusters of these quakes in a five year period he was able to predict the likelihood of a major earthquake in an area within five months.

In July 2005, scientists wrote in the Geographic Society Bulletin that had found a shelled amoeba that can help predict earthquakes. Evidence based on examination of core samples from the time that major earthquakes took place suggests that the amoeba changes in certain shallow coastal areas five to 10 years before a megathrust earthquake takes place. The amoebas seemed to change in response to slight elevation and saltwater changes along the coast that took place years before the major earthquake.

Earthquake Prediction in Japan

earth movement
measuring devise
Japan spends about $110 million a year on earthquake prediction studies. Earthquake monitoring devises include observation wells more than a mile deep, east and west of Tokyo, with meters that can detect movements in the earth's crust.

Japan has been making regular seismic observations since 1885. Groundwater is checked for increased concentrations of radon, which some scientists say is an indicator of an imminent earthquake. Monitoring plate activity is made difficult by the large amount of noise generated by factories, trains and vehicles.

Some Japanese scientist think they can predict the next major earthquake based on the periodic movement of the crust in certain areas of region before an earthquake. A very large earthquake hits the Tokyo on average of once every 69 years. The Japanese are also studying animal behavior as prediction method. Before the Kobe earthquake, fish reportedly swam near the surface of the sea and pigeons and crows flew in crazy patterns.

Laboratory experiments indicate that major fractures of rock are preceded by “pre-slips” in which the rock gives a little before it buckles. Scientists hope to pick up the pre-slips before a large earthquake and give people an advanced warning. Many scientists are skeptical as to whether these pre-slips do indeed exists and if they do exist how they can be distinguished from mundane daily tremors.

The Japanese government's Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion is responsible for predicting the occurrence and scale of earthquakes in or around the Japanese archipelago. The headquarters' long-term forecasting method uses records of past quakes.

The urgent earthquake warning system, introduced in 2007, is designed to estimate the intensity of an earthquake through detection of a weak, fast-traveling primary wave that occurs before a more powerful secondary wave. Emphasizing speed, the agency predicts an earthquake's intensity based on the primary information, leading to a margin of error of plus or minus one level, an agency official said. [Source: Masatoshi Imai, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 11, 2010]

  • Inaccuracies of Short Term Predictions of Earthquakes Based on Primary Waves
  • Inaccuracies of Short Term Predictions of Earthquakes Based on Primary Waves

    In December 2010, the Meteorological Agency issued an urgent earthquake warning, predicting a strong earthquake in the 5 range would occur soon in the Sapporo area. Warnings were issued on television; trains were stopped. But the earthquake turned out to be a minor one, two intensity levels below the one predicted.

    Japan’s Meteorological Agency has issued 17 urgent warnings as of December 2010. However, in seven cases, the quakes turned out to measure 4 or below on the intensity scale. On the other hand, the agency did not issue a warning in seven cases in which the quakes turned out to be lower 5 or stronger. [Source: Masatoshi Imai, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 11, 2010]

    Short term predictions based on weak primary waves that precede the main shock have significantly improved over the years, but can still be off the mark. On December 2, 2010, for example, Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued an urgent warning predicting that an earthquake registering lower 5 or higher on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 would soon hit Sapporo and other nearby cities. The earthquake's epicenter was in the central part of the Ishikari region of Hokkaido. [Ibid]

    Masatoshi Imai of the Yomiuri Shimbun wrote: “The agency corrected itself soon after, announcing the quake had been a 3. But the next day, the Sapporo District Meteorological Observatory announced the intensity level was believed to have been 4 and lower 5 in certain areas. Explaining why an agency official said: "According to the seismic intensity meter, the quake was a 3. But we have a limited number of observation points [in this area], so it's difficult to accurately determine the intensity near the epicenter immediately after the quake." [Ibid]

    “The agency issued the urgent warning after an observation point in Eniwa, Hokkaido, detected a primary wave of the quake at 6:44 a.m. on Dec. 2. The agency projected the quake would measure between 4 and lower 5, and issued the warning 8.5 seconds later. About one minute later, the agency concluded that the quake had been a 3, based on data collected from dozens of observation points. However, the observatory's field survey the next day showed the quake had broken windows at some schools and caused a landslide at a golf course in Kiyota Ward, Sapporo. Using the agency's criteria for determining seismic intensity, the observatory announced the quake had measured 4 to lower 5 in some areas.”

    “An earthquake that struck Fukushima Prefecture in September was similar to the case in Sapporo. Shortly after the agency issued an urgent warning, it announced the quake had measured as a 4. The following day, the agency announced that quake was believed to have been a lower 5 in some areas, after confirming that some roads had been cracked because of the earthquake.” [Ibid]

    "The current urgent earthquake warning system has limitations. But I don't want people to dismiss the information as inaccurate," said Katsumasa Abe, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo. "I urge people to continue paying attention to the information, as it may save their lives. At the same time, the Meteorological Agency must improve the system," Abe said. [Ibid]

    Earthquake Monitors in Japan

    monitoring instruments
    Japan’s Meteorological Agency is responsible for monitoring earthquakes. The Matsuhiroo Seismological Observatory, which is mainly consists of tunnels containing of earthquake observation devices in a mountains in Nagano Prefecture, can detect earthquakes and nuclear tests from around the globe.

    The Japanese government is currently installing underground seismometers between a dozen and several hundred meters underground as part of its set up to give scientists a better idea of when big quakes are likely to occur plus offer instaneous warnings when earthquakes occur. When the system is completed in 2014, major active faults in 110 locations nationwide will be monitors.

    Ground meters that are designed to pick up such pre-slips have been placed all over the Tokai area to pick up signs of a potentially dangerous earthquake there. If one or two meters show anomalies schoolchildren may be sent home. If three occur the country is put on high alter and police, soldiers and firefighter are put on high alert to act immediately and the Prime Minister will go on television to announce that an earthquake is imminent.

    More than 1,000 permanent GPS instruments have installed throughout Japan have discovered episodic, slow-slip events along subduction zones. Maps have been produced that show where large earthquakes are most likely to occur. In addition, a number of stress meters have been installed in the area straddling Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures in attempt to predict or at least get a warning of powerful Tokai earthquake.

    Yet, with all this, more than two decades after Tokyo established an Earthquake Assessment Committee no public warning of an earthquake has ever been issued.

    See Earthquake Warnings

    Image Sources: Mostly Earthquake Research Institute, University of Tokyo (Japan pictures), USGS (non-Japan pictures) except Tokyo 1923 (J.B. Macelwane Archives, St. Louis University) and Kobe 1995 (Kobe University)

    Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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    © 2009 Jeffrey Hays

    Last updated January 2013

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