Tsunami in Japan 2011: Waves Stirred Up by Earthquake Cause Wide Destruction

Learn about the science behind tsunamis and earthquakes

by Beth Rowen and Catherine McNiff
Location of earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011.

Location of the earthquake. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Animated movies from BrainPOP

Related Links

Tsunami in Japan

Japan was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, that triggered a deadly 23-foot tsunami in the country's north. The giant waves deluged cities and rural areas alike, sweeping away cars, homes, buildings, a train, and boats, leaving a path of death and devastation in its wake. Video footage showed cars racing away from surging waves. The earthquake—the largest in Japan's history—struck about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued warnings for Russia, Taiwan, Hawaii, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the west coasts the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and South America. According to the official toll, the disasters left 15,839 dead, 5,950 injured, and 3,642 missing.

Earthquake Causes Nuclear Disaster

What's more, cooling systems in one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in the Fukushima prefecture on the east coast of Japan failed shortly after the earthquake, causing a nuclear crisis. This initial reactor failure was followed by an explosion and eventual partial meltdowns in two reactors, then by a fire in another reactor which released radioactivity directly into the atmosphere. The nuclear troubles were not limited to the Daiichi plant; three other nuclear facilities also reported problems. More than 200,000 residents were evacuated from affected areas.

On April 12, Japan raised its assessment of the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to Level 7, the worst rating on the international scale, putting the disaster on par with the 1986 Chernobyl explosion. Developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) along with countries who use nuclear energy, the scale defines level 7 as a nuclear accident that involves "widespread health and environmental effects" and the "external release of a significant fraction of the reactor core inventory." Almost two months later, the IAEA called the status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant "very serious."

At a news conference on March 13, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who later gave the disaster the name "Great East Japan Earthquake", emphasized the gravity of the situation: "I think that the earthquake, tsunami, and the situation at our nuclear reactors makes up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war. If the nation works together, we will overcome." The government called in 100,000 troops to aid in the relief effort. The deployment was the largest since World War II.

The tsunami in Japan recalled the 2004 disaster in the Indian Ocean. On Dec. 26, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake—the largest earthquake in 40 years—ruptured in the Indian Ocean, off the northwest coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake stirred up the deadliest tsunami in world history, so powerful that the waves caused loss of life on the coast of Africa and were even detected on the East Coast of the United States. More than 225,000 people died from the disaster, a half a million were injured, and millions were left homeless.

See statistics on Deadliest Tsunamis and Deadliest Earthquakes.

The Science of Tsunami

A tsunami (pronounced soo-NAHM-ee) is a series of huge waves that occur as the result of a violent underwater disturbance, such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption. The waves travel in all directions from the epicenter of the disturbance. The waves may travel in the open sea as fast as 450 miles per hour. As they travel in the open ocean, tsunami waves are generally not particularly large—hence the difficulty in detecting the approach of a tsunami. But as these powerful waves approach shallow waters along the coast, their velocity is slowed and they consequently grow to a great height before smashing into the shore. They can grow as high as 100 feet; the Indian Ocean tsunami generated waves reaching 30 feet.

Tsunami is the Japanese word for "harbor wave." They are sometimes mistakenly referred to as tidal waves, but tsunamis have nothing to do with the tides. Tsunamis have been relatively rare in the Indian Ocean, and are most common in the Pacific Ocean.

For more details on Tsunami, see our encyclopedia article and Tsunami FAQs.

Tsunamis and Earthquakes: Facts and Stats

Nuclear Accidents: Facts and Stats

Deadliest Tsunamis in History
FatalitiesYearMagnitudePrincipal areas
350,00020049.0Indian Ocean
100,0001410 b.c. Crete-Santorini, Ancient Greece
100,00017558.5Portugal, Morocco, Ireland, and the United Kingdom
100,0001908Messina, Italy
40,00017827.0South China Sea, Taiwan
36,5001883 Krakatau, Indonesia
30,00017078.4Tokaido-Nankaido, Japan
26,36018967.6Sanriku, Japan
25,67418688.5Northern Chile
15,03017926.4Kyushu Island, Japan

Source: National Geophysical Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Deadliest Earthquakes in History
FatalitiesYearMagnitudePrincipal areas
830,00015568.0Shansi, China
255,000+19768.0Tangshan, China
230,000+20049.1off west coast of northern Sumatra
230,0001138n.a.Aleppo, Syria
222,57020107.0Haiti
200,00019208.6Gansu, China
200,00019277.9near Xining, China
200,000856n.a.Damghan, Iran
150,000893n.a.Ardabil, Iran
143,00019237.9Kwanto, Japan
87,58720087.9Sichuan, China

Source: National Earthquake Information Center, U.S. Geological Survey. Data compiled from several sources.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

Did you know?
George Eastman invented photograph roll film and the camera to use it.

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks

highlights

Healthy Smile Checklist for Kids
Have better dental check-ups with this free printable checklist that helps keep your child flossing, brushing, and smiling! Brought to you by Philips Sonicare.

Kindergarten Readiness App
It's kindergarten registration time! Use this interactive kindergarten readiness checklist, complete with fun games and activities, to practice the essential skills your child needs for this next big step. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

8 Easter Egg Decorating Ideas
Need some fun ideas for decorating Easter eggs with the kids? Look no further for colorful and cool designs!

7 Ways to Curb Kids' Exposure to Violence
American children are exposed to violence more often than you might think. Learn how to limit your child's exposure to violence and manage the mental health and behavioral effects it can cause.