On this day five years ago, the largest earthquake in modern Japanese history shook the mainland region of Tohoku. The tsunami that followed was devastating. Nearly 16,000 people were killed, and more than 127,000 buildings completely collapsed. The wave triggered power outages, explosions, and reactor meltdowns at a nuclear plant in Fukushima.
What is perhaps most tragic about the quake is that early-warning systems initially underestimated the magnitude of the event. If these systems had gotten it right, word may have spread more rapidly along Japan’s coast that a massive wave was fast approaching.
Five years later, seismology remains as one of the most unsettling fields of Earth science. As the New Yorker put it: “For seismologists, the Tohoku earthquake was a humbling reminder that our geophysical records offer only a peephole view of Earth’s behavior over time, and that our most advanced models for geological phenomena are cartoonish oversimplifications of nature.”
To learn more about the earthquake, see this gallery of NASA Earth Observatory images. Among the images included is the wave height map at the top of the page, and the closeup view of damage in the town of Rikuzentakata seen below.