Japan is especially vulnerable to earthquakes. The main islands sit on top of the boundary of four tectonic plates. Plate boundaries extend around the Pacific, in what is called “the Ring of Fire.”
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., a magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the coast of northeastern Honshu. It was the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and is now known as the Great East Japan Earthquake. In Tokyo, high-rises swayed, the power went out, and commuters were forced to walk home.
In the northeast area of Tohoku, massive tsunami waves generated by the earthquake swept towards the shore. When they reached land, less than an hour after the quake, the waves crested at up to 45 feet high and easily breached defensive sea walls. Water surged up to six miles inland and as it was funneled up into narrow valleys reached a staggering 127 feet high. The tsunami waves leveled nearly everything in their path except for the strongest concrete structures. Whole towns extending along hundreds of miles of coastline were simply wiped off the map. The death toll is estimated at 20,000 to 30,000. Many bodies were never found.
The quake and tsunami also delivered another major disaster, crippling the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant and causing the world’s most serious nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.