When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a tsunami in March 2011, one of the hardest hit areas was the city of Rikuzentakata. At the end of a narrow inlet, the city of roughly 8,000 households lost 75 percent of its homes. On March 14, 2011, The Mainichi Daily News declared: “Rikuzentakata has been erased.”
The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite observed dramatic changes at Rikuzentakata. ASTER combines infrared, red, and green wavelengths of light to make false-color images that distinguish between water and land. Water is blue; buildings and paved surfaces appear blue-gray. Agricultural fields range in color from brown to beige to pink. Vegetation is red, and brighter shades indicate more robust vegetation.
In the wake of the tsunami, the coastline of Rikuzentakata was totally reshaped. A long barrier beach with well-vegetated land, visible in 2007, was almost completely gone from the waterfront in 2011. North of that, flood water sat on agricultural fields.
East of Rikuzentakata, a large mass of peach-colored floating debris was visible. Debris, both floating and resting on land, extended eastward to Otomo, much of it lying over what had been farms. The debris mass likely contained material swept out of Rikuzentakata. If you open this larger image (6MB download) from 2011, you can see what were likely debris streams well off the Japanese coast.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen, using data from the GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team. Caption by Michon Scott.