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A triple disaster — earth, water and nuclear — struck Japan on March 11, 2011, when the biggest earthquake in its history ripped the seafloor. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami shattered lives. The destruction surprised the world, because few expected a quake or tsunami of that size even in seismically active Japan. Some 300,000 people are still homeless, living in residential camps, according to the Japanese government. Two years later, geologists still puzzle over Tohoku. During the earthquake, the giant offshore fault that ruptured behaved differently near the surface than it did deep below the Earth's crust.
This was unexpected, and now, scientists think, it could happen elsewhere. No subduction zone is safe from a megaquake.
"We can't assume anymore that there's a subduction zone that can't produce these very large subduction-zone earthquakes and tsunamis," said Jeanne Hardebeck, a seismologist at the U. S. Geological Survey's Menlo Park, Calif., office.
Now geologists believe they need to look further into the past, thousands of years, to capture a fault's true history.
The instrumental data and observations are about 120 years old, but the history of plate tectonics is over 4 billion years old," said Fumiko Tajima, a seismologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. "Using the seismic catalog to predict an earthquake is like using the data for one second [of Earth's history]. The statistics are not sufficient at all."
We now realize that things are much more variable in space and time than we would like to believe," Stein told OurAmazingPlanet. "That in turn creates a deep uncertainty in our ability to forecast the future."
For geoscientists, Tohoku was a reminder of the complexities of nature, Stein, of Northwestern University said. "It's really starting to sink in that the world is much more complicated than we would have liked to believe."