Research at the U: UM scientist explains earthquakes

courtesy Shimon Wdownski

On March 11, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck about 80 miles (130 km) off the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s most populated island.

The Great Sendai Earthquake, as it is now known, registered a 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale and triggered a massive tsunami that left more than 10,000 people dead.

So why was Japan, which has one of the most advanced earthquake detection and alert systems in the world, not immune to the destruction a large natural disaster can inflict on a developed territory?

“The problem was not that the buildings in Japan were unable to withstand the force of a major earthquake, it was that the wooden supports in those buildings were not designed to withstand the force of water placed on coastal Japan as a result of the tsunami and should never have been placed in such low lying areas,”  said Dr. Shimon Wdownski, a UM professor in the Department of Marine Geology and Geophysics.

Wdownski, who has done extensive research in plate tectonics, compared the occurrence of the Japan earthquake to bending a stick and snapping it into two pieces.

“Because faults are locked, stress along the fault line between two plate boundaries can accumulate to the point where the stress reaches a threshold and releases all that stored energy in the form of an earthquake,” Wdownski said.

Many people in the United States are now questioning whether earthquake-prone areas such as California, Oregon and Washington are prepared for such an event.

“Between the structuring of the terrain and the strict building regulations along the west coast, I think that major American cities around the Pacific Rim are well-prepared for a major earthquake or tsunami,” said junior Ben Reback, a northern California native.

The tragedy in Japan was another reminder of how volatile the planet is. With ongoing research and improving technology, scientists may have the ability to better predict large earthquakes so that, in the future, people can be evacuated before it is too late.

Jonathan Lebowitz may be contacted at