Geotechnical Lessons from the Tohoku Earthquake

Japan landslide area

Rockslide (background) and flood protection (foreground) in Ishinomaki City, Japan (Photo: Dave Swanson, Reid Middleton)

The magnitude 7.3 earthquake that struck Japan six days ago is a reminder of the more devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck March 11, 2011. In an earlier post we mentioned a reconnaissance team that traveled to Miyagi Prefecture in Japan in May 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami.

In the landslide area photo above from 2011, the light colored rock slope failed even with reinforcement that protected the slope to the left. The entire land area settled, which allowed Tsunami and high tide water access to the shoreline. Fortunately, in this area the Tsunami water was not as high as other areas, so the buildings weren’t washed away. Blue tarp temporarily protects the river bank from overtopping at high tide.

Doug Lindquist of Hart Crowser had these observations about the geotechnical damage:
Damage generally happened in known geologic hazard areas (tsunami zones, areas near past landslides, liquefiable areas, and reclaimed land).
• Liquefaction damage was extensive even 150 kilometers away from the fault rupture. (Seattle is about 100 kilometers from the Cascadia Subduction Zone.)
• Ground improvement measures are effective.
• Engineering methods can reasonably estimate the liquefaction hazard.
• Newer structures performed well when designed considering known geologic hazards.

As the reconnaissance team report reminds us, a similar earthquake will happen along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, off the coastline from northern California to British Columbia. The impacts of this event on our communities and industry will depend on the actions we take now to prepare for it. The lessons learned from Japan can be applied in our own communities.

For more details on the reconnaissance team’s findings, along with some fascinating photographs, see the report here.

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