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Remembering Japan’s 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami

Photo caption: Waves break outside Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, May 2, 2013.

Photo credit: Jun Teramoto / Flickr

Waves break outside Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, May 2, 2013.

Remembering Japan's 2011 Earthquake, Tsunami


Pat Abbot, geology professor emeritus, San Diego State University

Dave Sandwell, geophysicist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Ken Buesseler, senior scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and leading to a nuclear meltdown.

Five years later, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant is still leaking.

The scientific community has come together to learn more about the disaster, from pinpointing what may have produced the mega-earthquake to tracing radiation levels in the Pacific Ocean.

“Japan five years ago was on the most active trench in the world,” Pat Abbott, a geology professor emeritus at San Diego State University, told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday.

“A subduction zone where the Pacific plate, about a 60-mile thick slab of Pacific ocean floor is being pulled underneath Alaska, Russia and Japan,” Abbott said.

He worried that the same earthquake that caused the tsunami at Fukushima would bring a damaging ocean wave to San Diego. That could have threatened the then-operating San Onofre Nuclear Power Station near San Clemente.

“When you have these mega-thrust earthquakes, sometimes the produce a tsunami and sometimes they don’t,” said Dave Sandwell, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Sandwell said researchers are trying to understand what happens to the ocean floor when these large events happen. That will allow them to better understand how tsunamis form.

Scientists are also concerned about the effect of radiation from the meltdown at the three Japanese nuclear reactors.

“Despite the fact that levels (of radiation) decreased a lot in the few months after the accident, they had been so high that these levels were still of concern,” said Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Radiation levels are not going back to the levels they were before the accident, Buesseler said.

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