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Two days prior to the massive temblor, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake with three aftershocks greater than magnitude 6.0 hit offshore eastern Honshu.
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It also produced a maximum 60-centimeter-high tsunami, which struck the coast half an hour after the quake. Given the earthquake’s large magnitude and the smaller aftershocks that occurred as expected over the next day, no one thought that these could be foreshocks of an even larger event.
But it now looks like those quakes were all foreshocks for the magnitude-9.0 quake that hit two days later, just 40 kilometers north of the magnitude-7.2 event.
History will record this event as among the world’s worst natural disasters, but geoscience textbooks will discuss it because of certain rare characteristics.
Words like tsunami, kazan (volcano), danso (fault), jishin (earthquake) and typhoon (hurricane) are basic vocabulary in Japan.
More than 125,000 buildings have been washed away or seriously damaged; property damage is estimated to be more than 0 billion.
Japan is used to dealing with seismic hazards, but the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami (as it has been officially named) were unusual even for Japan.
Tsunami waves also swept across the Pacific, causing damage or disruptions in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
Casualties from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan may be 30,000.