Japan’s Great Quake Helps Scientists Plan For Future

PASADENA (CBS) — Friday’s magnitude-8.9 earthquake in Japan was so powerful it shifted the Earth on its axis and slightly shortened the length of a day.

The information gathered from this great quake will help scientists plan for the future, earthquake experts at Caltech said tonight.

The quake — said to be the fifth most powerful since 1900– and ensuing tsunami, killed more than 1,000 people in the island nation, and thousands more are missing. It also caused serious problems at three nuclear plants in Japan, prompting the evacuation of 200,000 people.

The resulting tsunami also affected the Southland, with wave surges capsizing boats on Catalina Island on Friday and causing more damage to coastal areas in northern California and Oregon.

But the quake provided valuable data for earthquake scientists, because an extensive network of sensors were placed throughout Japan after that country’s magnitude-6.8Kobe earthquake killed more than 6,000 people because its epicenter was near a major city.

The Los Angeles Times reported that at a news conference today, scientists at Caltech said it will provide a more precise view of how Earth is deformed during massive earthquakes at sites where one plate is sliding under another, including the Pacific Northwest in the United State.

“The Japanese have the best seismic information in the world,” said Lucy Jones, chief scientist for the Multi-Hazards project at the U.S. Geological Survey. “This is overwhelmingly the best-recorded great earthquake ever.”

Analysts have determined that the earthquake’s force moved parts of eastern Japan as much as 12 feet closer to North America, and Japan has shifted downward about two feet.

Jones said the U.S. Geological Survey determined that the entire earthquake sequence — including foreshocks and aftershocks — had so far resulted in 200 tremblors of magnitude 5 or larger, 20 of which occurred before the big quake hit.

She said the aftershocks were continuing but decreasing in frequency, although not in magnitude, which was to be expected.

Caltech geophysicist Mark Simons said that kind of information will enable scientists to understand future hazards in the region.

Caltech seismological engineer Tom Heaton said the devastating tremblor will provide more information about what happens to buildings when they shake for long periods, and how to construct them so they will survive massive quakes.

“We had very little information about that before now,” he said.

Though the data is still being processed, he said it will probably show that the shaking lasted for three minutes.

Another massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is “inevitable,” although it may not strike for hundreds of years.

Jones said “This will help the Pacific Northwest understand what they should be ready for. I wouldn’t be sleepless in Seattle, but I’d be studious.”

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)


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