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Soldiers look for survivors after a large earthquake struck Japan.
Japanese troops search for earthquake survivors in Otsuchi on Sunday.

Photograph from Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

A map shows where an earthquake struck Japan.

A map shows the epicenter of the recent Japan earthquake. Map courtesy USGS.

Richard A. Lovett

for National Geographic News

Published March 14, 2011

Though Friday's Japan earthquake—which spawned a tsunami and damaged a nuclear power plant—was the largest to strike the country since the dawn of modern seismology, it wasn't the long dreaded "big one," experts say.

Not because the magnitude 9 earthquake wasn't big, but because it was in the wrong place. (See Japan earthquake and tsunami pictures.)

Seismologists have long predicted that the big one would probably be a repeat of the 1923 Kanto earthquake, which occurred in a dangerous fault zone close to Tokyo and killed an estimated 142,000 people.

(Related: "Earthquake Fault Under Tokyo Closer Than Expected, Study Finds.")

Japan is a tectonically complex zone where three major plates, the Pacific plate, the Okhotsk plate, and the Philippine plate are all ramming into each other. (Learn more about tectonic plates.)

The 1923 earthquake—estimated to have had a magnitude of between 7.9 and 8.4—came from the collision between the Philippine plate and the islands of Japan, in a fault zone known as the Sagami Trough, offshore from Tokyo.

Last week's earthquake occurred farther north, in the southern part of the Japan Trench, formed by the collision of the Pacific and Okhotsk plates.

"Most [experts] didn't expect one so big from there," Chris Goldfinger, director of the Active Tectonics and Seafloor Mapping Laboratory at Oregon State University, said by email.

That's because the Japan Trench has always produced big but not monstrous quakes, at least in the thousand years since humans have been keeping track, he said.

Seth Stein, a geophysics professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, agreed.

"The Japanese have spent a lot of time preparing for a big earthquake somewhat further south—basically in the Tokyo area," he said.

The recent earthquake was also powerful enough to have permanently moved Japan by about 8 feet (2.4 meters), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (See "Japan Tsunami Pictures: Nuclear Reactor and Cities Burn.")

Predicting Earthquakes a Shaky Science

Not that the Japan Trench had been seismically inactive, experts noted. "Northern Japan has had earthquakes throughout its history," said Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.

The problem is simply that scientists don't have enough long-term records of past earthquakes to predict the largest possible earthquake from any given location, according to Northwestern's Stein.

(Related: "Shaky Start for New Quake Alert System in Japan.")

That's true even in Japan, where historical records—which are not as precise as modern seismological records but still quite good—go back more than 1,100 years, he said.

"Recent history is no indicator of what could happen," David Applegate, senior science advisor for the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazard Program, said at a March 11 press briefing.

Likewise, there is still a fear that there will be another big earthquake down south, in the Sagami Trough, experts say.

Larger Earthquakes Predicted

Earthquake records, however aren't the only way that scientists can monitor earthquake risk. (Learn how to help the victims of the Japan earthquake.)

For instance, University of Tokyo earthquake specialist Yasutaka Ikeda has made high-precision GPS measurements of the rate at which tectonic forces are compressing the plates along the Japan Trench, according to Oregon State's Yeats.

Ikeda compared those measurements to the rate at which tension has been released by earthquakes.

His conclusion showed "there were insufficient earthquakes in the last century to [ease] all of that strain," Yeats said. "He suggested that there might be larger ones in the future"—such as the March 11 earthquake.

(More from National Geographic magazine: predicting the next giant earthquake.)

Ikeda was in China at the time of the earthquake, but even he was caught by surprise. "I did not expect that one to occur while I am alive," he told National Geographic News via email.

Japan Earthquake Preceded by Foreshock

Another warning of Friday's earthquake was visible only in hindsight: A magnitude 7.2 earthquake that had struck the same region on March 9.

Normally earthquakes of that size are followed by smaller aftershocks, not bigger earthquakes. (See earthquake pictures.)

"Lots of magnitude 7 earthquakes are not followed by anything larger," USGS's Applegate said. "It's only in hindsight that we can look back and see that it is a foreshock"—as was the case with the March 9 earthquake.

Only 1 time in 20 do such earthquakes produce aftershocks that are larger than the initial temblor, he added.

The bottom line is that "earthquakes don't come with a warning," U.S. Federal Emergency Management Administration administrator Craig Fugate said during the March 11 briefing.

No matter how carefully we build damage-resistant structures, "things like tsunamis and the shaking of [an] earthquake [are] still going to cause damage."

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