Pure and Applied Geophysics

, Volume 171, Issue 12, pp 3257–3278 | Cite as

The Great Tohoku-Oki Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan: A Critical Review and Evaluation of the Tsunami Source Mechanism

  • George Pararas-CarayannisEmail author


The great Tohoku-Oki earthquake of March 11, 2011 generated a very destructive and anomalously high tsunami. To understand its source mechanism, an examination was undertaken of the seismotectonics of the region and of the earthquake’s focal mechanism, energy release, rupture patterns and spatial and temporal sequencing and clustering of major aftershocks. It was determined that the great tsunami resulted from a combination of crustal deformations of the ocean floor due to up-thrust tectonic motions, augmented by additional uplift due to the quake’s slow and long rupturing process, as well as to large coseismic lateral movements which compressed and deformed the compacted sediments along the accretionary prism of the overriding plane. The deformation occurred randomly and non-uniformly along parallel normal faults and along oblique, en-echelon faults to the earthquake’s overall rupture direction—the latter failing in a sequential bookshelf manner with variable slip angles. As the 1992 Nicaragua and the 2004 Sumatra earthquakes demonstrated, such bookshelf failures of sedimentary layers could contribute to anomalously high tsunamis. As with the 1896 tsunami, additional ocean floor deformation and uplift of the sediments was responsible for the higher waves generated by the 2011 earthquake. The efficiency of tsunami generation was greater along the shallow eastern segment of the fault off the Miyagi Prefecture where most of the energy release of the earthquake and the deformations occurred, while the segment off the Ibaraki Prefecture—where the rupture process was rapid—released less seismic energy, resulted in less compaction and deformation of sedimentary layers and thus to a tsunami of lesser offshore height. The greater tsunamigenic efficiency of the 2011 earthquake and high degree of the tsunami’s destructiveness along Honshu’s coastlines resulted from vertical crustal displacements of more than 10 m due to up-thrust faulting and from lateral compression and folding of sedimentary layers in an east-southeast direction which contributed additional uplift estimated at about 7 m—mainly along the leading segment of the accretionary prism of the overriding tectonic plate.


Japan Honshu Sanriku great 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake Japan seismotectonics tsunami source-mechanism tsunamigenic efficiency Japan Trench 



The author thanks Peter Zhol for his assistance in providing earthquake aftershock clustering data.


  1. Ammon C. J., Thorne L., Kanamori H., and Cleveland M., 2011, “A rupture model of the great 2011 Tohoku earthquake”. Earth Planets Space, 63(7), 693–696.Google Scholar
  2. Annunziato, A. (2012), Sea Level Signals Correction for the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami. Science of Tsunami Hazards, Vol 31 No. 2, pp 99–111.Google Scholar
  3. Fujii, Y., Satake, K., Sakai, S., Shinobara, M., and Kanazawa, T. (2011), Tsunami source of the 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku earthquake, Earth Planets Space 63, no. 7, 815–820.b.Google Scholar
  4. Fujiwara, T., Kodaira, S., No, T., Kaiho, Y., Takahashi, N., Kaneda, Y. (2011), The 2011 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake: Displacement Reaching the Trench Axis, Science 334, no. 6060, 1240–1240; doi: 10.1126/science.1211554.
  5. Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (2011), The 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake: Crustal deformation and fault model (preliminary),
  6. Gusman, Aditya, R., Tanioka, Y., Sakai, S., Tsushima, H. (2012), Source model of the great 2011 Tohoku earthquake estimated from tsunami waveforms and crustal deformation data, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 341–344: 234–242.Google Scholar
  7. Hatori, T., Aida, I, Koyama M., and T. Hibiya (1982), Field Survey of the Tsunamis In Inundating Ofunato City—The 1960 Chile and 1933 Sanriku Tsunamis. Bull. of the Earthquake Research Institute, Vol. 57, pp. 133–150.Google Scholar
  8. Hayes, G. (2011), Rapid source characterization of the 03-11-2011 Mw 9.0 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku earthquake, Earth Planets Space, Special Issue: First Results of the 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake, 63(7), 525–528.Google Scholar
  9. Hayes, G.P., Earle, P.S., Benz, H.M., Wald, D.J., Briggs, R., and the USGS/NEIC Earthquake Response Team (2011), 88 hours: the U.S. Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center response to the March 11, 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku earthquake, Seismol. Res. Lett., 82(4), 481–493, doi: 10.1785/gssrl.82.4.481.
  10. Honda, R., Yukutake, Y., Ito, H., Harada, M., Aketagawa, T., Yoshida, A., Sakai, S., Nakagawa, S., Hirata. N., Obara. K., and Kimura H. (2011), A complex rupture image of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake revealed by the MeSO-net. TERRAPUB Report (Received April 10, 2011; Revised May 18, 2011; Accepted May 29, 2011 and published Online).Google Scholar
  11. Ide, S., Baltay, A., Beroza, G.C. (2011), Shallow dynamic overshoot and energetic deep rupture in the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Science 332, no. 6036, 1426–1429. doi:  10.1126/science.1207020.
  12. Iida, K., Cox D.C., and Pararas–Carayannis, G. (1967), Preliminary Catalog of Tsunamis Occurring in the Pacific Ocean. Data Report No. 5. Honolulu: Hawaii Inst. Geophys. Aug. 1967.Google Scholar
  13. Ito, Y., Tsuji, T., Osada, Y., Kido, M., Inazu, D., Hayashi, Y., Tsushima, H., Hino, R., and H. Fujimoto (2011), Frontal wedge deformation near the source region of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L00G05, doi: 10.1029/2011GL048355.
  14. Kato, A., Obara, K., Igarashi, T., Tsuruoka, H., Nakagawa, S., Hirata, N. (2012), Propagation of Slow Slip Leading Up to the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki Earthquake, Science, 10 February 2012, Vol. 335 no. 6069, pp. 705–708. doi: 10.1126/science.1215141.
  15. Kawakatsu, H., and T. Seno (1983), Triple seismic zone and the regional variation of seismicity along the northern Honshu arc. J. Geophys. Res. 88, 4215–4230, 1983.Google Scholar
  16. Kido, M., Osada, Y., Fujimoto, H., Hino, R., Ito, Y. (2011), Trench-normal variation in observed seafloor displacements associated with the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L24303, doi: 10.1029/2011GL050057.
  17. Maeda, T., Furumura, T., Sakai, S., and Shinohara, M. (2011), Significant tsunami observed at ocean-bottom pressure gauges during the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku earthquake, Earth Planets Space, 63(7), 803–808.Google Scholar
  18. Mori, N., Takahashi T., Yasuda T., and H. Yanagisawa (2011), Survey of 2011 Tohoku earthquake tsunami inundation and run-up, Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L00G14, doi: 10.1029/2011GL049210.
  19. Mori, N., Takahashi T., and The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group (2012), Nationwide Post Event Survey and Analysis of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami, Coastal Engineering Journal, Vol. 54, Issue 4, 1250001, 27 p.Google Scholar
  20. Nakao, M. (2009), The Great Meiji Sanriku Tsunami June 15, 1896 at the Sanriku coast of the Tohoku region. Retrieved 2009-10-18.Google Scholar
  21. Nettles, M., Ekstrom, G., and Koss, H.C. (2011), Centroid-momnet-tensor analysis of the 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake and its larger foreshocks and aftershocks, Earth Planets Space, 63(7), 519–523.Google Scholar
  22. Ozawa, S., Nishimura, T., Suito, H., Kobayashi, T., Tobita, M., and Imakiire, T. (2011), Coseismic and postseismic slip of the 2011 magnitude-9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Nature 475, no. 7356, 373–376 (21 July 2011). doi: 10.1038/nature10227.
  23. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (1969), Catalog of Tsunamis in the Hawaiian Islands. World Data Center A- Tsunami, U.S. Dept. of Commerce Environmental Science Service Administration—Coast and Geodetic Survey, May 1969.Google Scholar
  24. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (1983), The Earthquake and Tsunami of 26 May 1983 in the Sea of Japan.
  25. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (1992), The Earthquake and Tsunami of 2 September 1992 in Nicaragua.
  26. Pararas-Carayannis, G., (1994), The Earthquake and Tsunami of July 12, 1993 in the Sea of Japan/East Sea—The Hokkaido “Nansei-Oki” Earthquake and Tsunami.
  27. Pararas-Carayannis, G., (2000), Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century.
  28. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (2005), Earthquake and Tsunami of December 26, 2004, in Indonesia.
  29. Pararas-Carayannis G., (2006), Potential of Tsunami Generation along the Makran Subduction Zone in the Northern Arabian Sea, Case Study: The Earthquake and Tsunami of November 28, 1945, Science of Tsunami Hazards, Vol. 24, No. 5, pp 358–384.
  30. Pararas-Carayannis, G., (2009), Earthquake and Tsunami of 3 March 1933 in Sanriku, Japan.
  31. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (2010), Earthquake and Tsunami of 27 February 2010 in Chile—Evaluation of Source Mechanism and of Near and Far-field Tsunami Effects. Science of Tsunami Hazards, Vol. 29, No. 2. 2010. Summary at
  32. Pararas-Carayannis, G. (2011), The Great Tsunami of March 11, 2011 in Japan—Analysis of Source Mechanism and Tsunamigenic Efficiency. OCEANS 11, MTS/IEEE Proceedings, 2011.Google Scholar
  33. Sato, M., Ishikawa, T., Ujihara, N., Yoshida, S., Fujita, M., Mochizuki, M., and Asada, A. (2011), Displacement above the hypocenter of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Science, 332, 1395.Google Scholar
  34. Seno, T., and Gonzalez, D. G. (1987), Faulting caused by earthquakes beneath the outer slope of the Japan Trench. J. Phys. Earth 35, 381–407, 1987.Google Scholar
  35. Seno, T. (1999a), Is northern Honshu a microplate? Tectonophysics 115, 177–196, 1985.Google Scholar
  36. Seno, T. (1999b), Syntheses of the regional stress fields of the Japanese islands. The Island Arc 8, 66–79, 1999.Google Scholar
  37. Seno, T., and Y. Yamanaka (1996), Double seismic zones, compressional deep trench - outer rise events and superplumes in Subduction Top to Bottom, edited by G. E. Bebout, D. W. Scholl, S. H. Kirby, and J. P. Platt Geophys. Monogr. 96, 347–355, 1996.Google Scholar
  38. Seno, T., and Y. Yamanaka (1998), Arc stresses determined by slabs: Implications for mechanisms of back-arc spreading. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 3227–3230, 1998.Google Scholar
  39. Seno, T., Sakurai T, and S. Stein (1981), Can the Okhotsk plate be discriminated from the North American plate? J. Geophys. Res. 101, 11305–11315, 1996.Google Scholar
  40. Seno, T., and B. Pongsawat (1981), A triple-planed structure of seismicity and earthquake mechanisms at the subduction zone off Miyagi Prefecture, northern Honshu, Japan Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 55, 25–36, 1981.Google Scholar
  41. Seno, T., and G. C. Kroeger (1983), A reexamination of earthquakes previously thought to have occurred within the slab between the trench axis and double seismic zone, northern Honshu. J. Phys. Earth. 31, 195–216, 1983.Google Scholar
  42. Seno, T., and T. Takano (1996), Seismotectonics at the trench–trench-trench triple junction off central Honshu. Pure Appl. Geophys. 129, 27–40, 1989.Google Scholar
  43. Shao, G., Li, X., Ji, C., and T. Maeda (2011), Focal mechanism and slip history of 2011 Mw 9.1 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku earthquake, constrained with teleseismic body and surface waves, Earth Planets Space, 63, 559–564, 2011.Google Scholar
  44. Simons, M., Minson, S.E., Sladen, A., Ortega, F., Jiang, J., Owen, S.E., Meng, L., Ampuero, J-P., Wei, S., Chu, R., Helmberger, D.V., Kanamori, H., Hetland, E., Moore, A.W., and Webb, F.H. (2011), The 2011 magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake: Mosaicking the megathrust from seconds to centuries, Science, 332(6036), 1421–1425.Google Scholar
  45. Tanioka, Y., and K. Satake (1996), Fault parameters of the 1896 Sanriku tsunami earthquake estimated from tsunami numerical modeling, Geophys. Res. Letters, 23–13, 1549–1552.Google Scholar
  46. Tanioka, Y., and Seno, T. (2001), Sediment effect on tsunami generation of the 1896 Sanriku tsunami earthquake. Geophysical Research Letters 28(17): 3389–3392.Google Scholar
  47. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group (2011), Nationwide Field Survey of the 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami, Journal of Japan Society of Civil Engineers, Series B, Vol. 67 (2011), No. 1, pp. 63–66.Google Scholar
  48. Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Information, The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group.
  49. Wang, D., and Mori, J. (2011), Rupture Process of the 2011 off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake (Mw 9.0) as Imaged with Back-Projection of Teleseismic P-waves. Earth Planets Space, 1–5, 2011.Google Scholar
  50. Wei, D. and Seno T., 1998, Determination of the Amurian Plate Motion, In Mantle Dynamics and Plate Interactions in East Asia, edited by Martin Flower, GeoDynamics Series., AGU, 1998.Google Scholar
  51. Yamazaki Y., Lay T., Cheung, K.F., Yue, H., and Kanamori, H. (2011), Modeling near-field tsunami observations to improve finite-fault slip models for the 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L12605, doi: 10.1029/2011GL047508.
  52. Yoshida, Y., Ueno, H., Muto, D., and S. Aoki (2011), Source process of the 2011 Off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku earthquake with the combination of teleseismic and strong motion data, Earth Planets Space 63, no. 7, 565–569.Google Scholar
  53. Yokota, Y., Koketsu, K., Fujii, Y., Satake, K., Sakai, S., Shinohara, M., and T. Kanazawa (2011), Joint inversion of strong motion, teleseismic, geodetic, and tsunami datasets for the rupture process of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Geophys. Res. Lett. doi: 10.1029/2011GL050098.

Copyright information

© Springer Basel 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tsunami Society InternationalHonoluluUSA

Personalised recommendations