Earthquakes are caused by the sudden movement of rocks along weak zones (faults) or by pressures from volcanic activity. Tectonic plates divide the Earth’s crust into blocks which move and build up stress in rocks. These stressed rocks can sometimes suddenly snap, vertically or sideways, causing shaking and vibration. Japan lies on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ a region of high earthquake and volcanic activity. Japan is particularly prone to earthquakes as it lies on the junction of several colliding tectonic plates. The Philippine Sea Plate and the Pacific Plate are moving in a north west direction and are being pushed (subducted) beneath the Eurasian plate and North American plate under the region of Japan. This forms an unstable oceanic trench (subduction zone), and creates an Island Arc or string of volcanoes from the rise of magma from the melting crust.

Tsunami Banda Aceh
A photograph that captures the destruction and severity of the Tsunami that hit Banda Aceh in Sumatra on 28 December 2004. Part of a series depicting the scale of the destruction and the impact on humanity of the killer wave that caused the death of hundreds of thousands and left many more homeless. Image: Renee Nowytarger
© Renee Nowytarger

Tsunami is a Japanese word combining ‘harbour’ and ‘wave’. Shock waves from large earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or landslides can displace ocean waters which travel out as a wave or series of waves. When the wave reaches shallow water near land its top slows down, but faster moving deeper water catches up and forms a higher wave. Tsunamis travel up to 950 km/hour in deep water and 100 to 300 km/hour across a continental shelf.

Go to our Plate Tectonics page for more geological information.