Lessons remain vital five years after deadly Japan earthquake, tsunami

On March 11 five years ago, the earth reminded us of its destructive and unstoppable power when a magnitude 9 earthquake in northern Japan touched off a tsunami and caused tens of thousands of deaths and devastated much of the nation’s infrastructure.

Waves from the tsunami reached the coast of Washington and other western states, where they damaged California coastal communities and washed some of the estimated 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris onto our shores.

Not only is the anniversary a time to remember those lost in Japan, but it should also serve as a reminder that Washington needs to be prepared for a similar geologic hazard threat.

An earthquake fault with similar potential lies just off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Geologists say it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the Cascadia fault off our coast unleashes another mega quake.

Damaging tsunamis have hit the Washington and Pacific Northwest coast in the past. These events are recorded in oral Native American history and in the geologic record.


To get a picture of what we may need to do in the recovery, DNR and other members of the Washington State Seismic Safety Committee produced the ‘Resilient Washington State’ report.

DNR’s Geology and Earth Resources Division, the state’s official geologic survey, is helping Washington communities identify how they are vulnerable to similar tsunami events and how they can craft innovative strategies for dealing with those threats.


Following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the Tsunami Warning and Education Act of 2006 was put in place. The act allowed NOAA to formalize and expand the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, a partnership with Pacific states to protect the West Coast from tsunamis.

Hazards geologists with the Department of Natural Resources Division of Geology and Earth Resources, the National Center for Tsunami Research at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, and scientists with the University of Washington model tsunami inundation in population centers both along the Washington coast and within the Puget Sound.

To do this complex math, the geologists use software (Clawpack), developed by the Applied Mathematics Department of UW or the MOST model, developed by NOAA.

A recently published inundation map for the city of Everett models how a tsunami would likely impact the Everett area. We also have dozens of publications for communities like Neah Bay, Tacoma, Anacortes and many others that would be hit by tsunamis.

DNR has charted evacuation routes for those in communities that might be impacted by tsunamis on our interactive geologic map. You can take those routes with you on your phone with this tsunami evacuation app.

To stay up to date on tsunamis, tune in to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

For more on tsunamis, visit DNR’s Geology Division web page.

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