Powerful Earthquake Hits Japan; Tsunamis Expected to Hit Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, Mexico

When a smaller earthquake struck near Tokyo a couple of days ago, I wondered if worse was on the way soon.

Japan has been overdue for a major earthquake, given their historical frequency. Perversely, there was much more worry about the impact of a major quake on Japan when it was an economic force to be reckoned with (perhaps a subconscious wish to cut the seemingly unbeatable Japanese down to size?). While the horrific death count that resulted from the last great quake in 1923, led the Japanese to impose vastly tougher building codes and continue to improve upon earthquake-related technology, events like this too often have a nasty way of defeating careful planning. But this tremblor, which registered a formidable magnitude 8.8, was off the northern coast, but still has produced serious disruptions in Tokyo. There are no good reports of the damage yet. From the New York Times:

The quake that struck 2:46 p.m. was followed by a series of aftershocks, including a 7.4-magnitude one about 30 minutes later. The U.S. Geological Survey upgraded the strength of the first quake to a magnitude 8.8.

The meteorological agency issued a tsunami warning for the entire Pacific coast of Japan. National broadcaster NHK was warning those near the coast to get to safer ground.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami warning was in effect for Japan, Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Marianas. A tsunami watch has been issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the U.S. state of Hawaii.

The quake struck at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 80 miles (125 kilometers) off the eastern coast, the agency said. The area is 240 miles (380 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo.

In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms.

Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks.

Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.

Thirty minutes after the quake, tall buildings were still swaying in Tokyo and mobile phone networks were not working.

The buildings are designed to sway but it must be really disturbing to see them move that much.

From the Wall Street Journal:

A powerful earthquake, measured at 8.8 magnitude, struck Japan Friday afternoon, causing damage in Tokyo and sparking warnings of a 6-meter-high tsunami along the country’s northeastern coast.

The yen, Tokyo stocks and Japanese government bond yields fell, with the benchmark Nikkei Stock Average closing 1.7% lower and the dollar rising to around 83.20 yen from 82.80 yen.

Television reported smoke rising from a Tokyo port building, and fire in the capital’s waterfront Odaiba district.

The tsunami watch was in effect for Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hawaii, Russia and the Marianas.

The magnitude was revised upward from 7.9 magnitude by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Public broadcaster NHK showed cars, trucks, houses and buildings being swept away by tsunami in Onahama city in Fukushima prefecture.

I hope all reader in Japan and their loved ones are safe.

Update 3:15 AM: I’m watching BBC live. The studio in Tokyo is still getting aftershocks. They showed footage of a massive refinery fire in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo. Hundreds of thousand of people are stranded as subway and trains service has been suspended.

Tsunami map (hat tip Richard Smith):

Screen shot 2011-03-11 at 3.22.53 AM

Update 3:25 AM Wow, Wikipedia already has an entry.

Update 4:00 AM:

Japan’s earthquake Financial Times. Updated frequently, liveblog style

Watch NHK in English for more earthquake news (hat tip Clusterstock)

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  1. ShinjukuBaby

    I’m fine, but things are still shaking quite a bit in Tokyo.

    The TV images of Sendai and other places are incredible. This is a major, major disaster.

  2. Akira

    It’s still shaking in Tokyo and it has been for hours. I don’t see any real damages in Tokyo however it’s very frightening.

  3. ShinjukuBaby

    Where in Tokyo are you, Akira?

    Things in Akasaka-Mitsuke seem pretty OK, but yes, very, very scary.

  4. John F. Opie

    There are aftershocks in excess of 5 on the Richter scale every 7-15 minutes as well: 14 aftershocks in excess of 6 on the Richter scale as well.

    This may not be over.

    All four nuclear power plants within the earthquake area closed down as programmed.

    The city most affected, Sendai, has over 1 mn population. The prefecture most effected, Miyagi, has over 2.3mn population, the local economy is a mixture of industrial production and extensive agriculture on the plains, largely rice. As this region is fairly north, there is only one harvest here a year.

    The Michinoko region is the bread basket of Japan, producing more than 20% of the entire rice production in Japan. Given the extensive flooding, at least some of this will be destroyed and should lead to a significant increase in food prices, especially since there is only the one harvest (further south they manage two harvests per year).

    No major companies located there (but significant logistics and transportation infrastructure). The city of Sendai is pretty well trashed.

  5. Anon

    How is a nuclear power plant tsunami-proofed, exactly?

    The Fukushiki nuclear facility is on the coast two hours south of Sendai by road, 10 hours north of Tokyo. Sendai is where much of the impact of the tsunami appears to have been felt so far (map showing Fukushiki location here: http://ewallstreeter.com/syndicated/30370/japan-declares-nuclear-emergency-as-cooling-system-fails-at-power-plant#).

    Yet as we speak, the BBC is running a piece with quotes from a UCL earthquake engineering scientist, which suggests that:

    Sensitive buildings like nuclear power plants will be sited as far away from the coast as is possible and designed to shut down into “safe mode” as soon as an earthquake is detected. (see “Japan earthquake: Can you tsunami-proof a country?”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12711173)

    Will be sited, will be?

    How about where they are sited right now?

    This was a monster quake, felt far and wide.

    Who does the nuclear industry think it’s kidding?

    1. Anon

      *Fukushima, not fukushiki [kumite].

      (At times of great upset, it appears I go back to the dojo.)

  6. Nonoy

    I saw one video from Yahoo when the Japan earthquake occurs, and observed the buildings there seem to be just dancing as though they have some wheels under the building. The scary thing was the Tsunami where roads broke into halves.

    Let us pray that no worse could happen, especially in my country Philippines, and of course to several countries that are on alert now.

  7. Anon

    Emergency diesel generators “out of order” at Fukushima, according to Nuclear Engineering International report:

    JAIF [Japan Atomic Information Forum] reported that Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2 and 3 automatically shut down; units 4, 5 and 6 were in maintenance outages. Fukushima Daini 1, 2, 3 and 4 automatically shut down.

    JAIF has reported that TEPCO sent the emergency report because emergency diesel generators at the two sites are out of order. (Nuclear power plants need power to operate pumps and other emergency equipment, including equipment to remove decay heat from the reactor.)

    (“Japan initiates emergency protocol after earthquake”
    11 March 2011, http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?sectioncode=132&storyCode=2059127)

    1. CaitlinO

      A report just out on CNN said they’re having trouble maintaining enough power to run the cooling system and have evacuated people from the area of one of the nuclear plants.

    2. CaitlinO

      The USAF has rushed in coolant to Fukushima No. 1. Pressure is building in the dome and water levels continue to fall but there has been no detection of a radiation leak.

      From MSNBC

      1. John L

        The news agencies are reporting radiation levels rising 1000x normal in and around the Fukushima reactor. While that’s still relatively low (normal radiation levels are around zero), that’s still indicating there may be a radiation leak.

        Also, earlier reports indicated radiation being detected in a turbine building (where no radiation should be found), and that pressures were rising rapidly in the reactor containment vessel itself. That appears to indicate a cooling leak, and the remaining coolant in the reactor has turned to steam, increasing the pressure inside. Reports were that the engineers were going to release some steam to reduce the pressure, which may be the cause of the higher radiation levels.

  8. JerryDenim

    This is terrible. I feel so awful. I love Japan and Japanese people. So sorry to all of the Japanese readers of NC. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your countrymen.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I share the same sentiment.

      It would be just horrible if something worse happens with these nuclear plants after what the nation went through at the end of WWII.

  9. Anon

    Latest 6.6 quake near Nagano, Niigata prefecture, around 4.20am local time on coast facing Korean peninsula (different fault line to one that shook Sendai).

    Nearest nuclear plant is Kashiwazaki, Japan’s biggest, which according to Reuters, has four of its seven BWR reactors online (three have been down for years).

    (“RPT-TABLE-Japan nuclear plant operations status after quake”, 11 March 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/11/japan-nuclear-idUSL3E7EB26V20110311)

    (location of all 55 Japan nuclear reactors here: http://www.japannuclear.com/nuclearpower/program

    Welcome to the Japanese version of Russian roulette.

    1. Paul Repstock

      I am so happy that Japan was as well prepared, and was able to avoid even greater loss of life.
      However. I have some questions.
      First I need to do some cya qualifying here. I involuntarily retired from the trading markets when WTI reached $105. Since then I’ve only been a spectator.

      Now to my questions; Why was there so little effect on the markets from this massive earthquake. The MSM are full of the earthquake to the exclusion of nearly every other story except sports and movie stars. To me these things suggest that the earthquake was not significant, but that it comes at a politically convenient time.

  10. Smith

    there is still warning for 10 other countries and they should be prepare for this. I am happy with the way the Japanese dealt with it.

  11. Tom Parsons

    Earthquake not significant? The physical evidence is visible out my window at this moment, half a world away (google “Okoromai Bay, New Zealand 0930”). The Bay has seen surges equal to normal tides at 15-minute intervals all afternoon, as the entire Hauraki Gulf must be seiching after being stimulated by the tsunami earlier today.

    1. Paul Repstock

      Tom. I did not mean to appear insensitive or ignorant. I watched the pictures all last night. Mainly I was questioning the reaction or rather lack thereof from the markets.

      Perhaps the recent upheaval in North Africa may have had an influence, but in my view this should only have increased the reaction to Japans earthquake. Specially, as it comes on the heels of the two major New Zealand quakes. I guess it doesn’t matter to me, I just cannot understand it.

      I hope things will settle down now. The world gas enough problems atm, without mother nature adding to it.

      1. Paul Repstock

        Terribly sad, but still a miracle in it’s own way. The news is sporadic and conflicting. I read one source suggesting tens of thousands dead but the live blog from Al Jazerra suggests otherwise, we are all hopig for small numbers and a nuclear containment,-

        3:49pm At least 703 people have been confirmed killed in the earthquake but the government voiced fears that more than 1,000 had died.

        3:45pm Japanese officials and experts have dismissed suggestions of a repeat of a Chernobyl-type disaster.

        “No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction,” Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, says.

        Even in the worst-case scenario, that would mean some radioactive leakage and equipment damage, but not an explosion. If venting is done carefully, there will be little leakage. Certainly not beyond the 3 km radius.

  12. james

    There is news coming out that radiation is leaking and Govt already warned people to stay out of the area and taking strong measures to protect people from another calamities.

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