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A Decade of Great Earthquakes - NOAA/NWS/Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC)

Watch 10 years of earthquakes go by in just under 3 minutes


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, January 2, 2015, 4:19 PM - It's estimated that millions of earthquakes go off under our feet every year, with only a fraction of those occurring where we or seismic sensors can feel them. This video, from NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) gives us a glimpse at 10 years worth - hundreds of thousands of them, of all magnitudes, including some of the most devastating of the past decade.

The video goes by very quickly, but some key features are immediately apparent. 

1) The 'Pacific Ring of Fire'

The Pacific plate, the largest tectonic plate on the planet - at over 260 million square kilometres - stands out quite clearly as the large 'empty' area in the centre of the animation. Surrounding it on virtually all sides is the Pacific Ring of Fire - a nearly unbroken line of earthquakes that most times spans from central Argentina, north to Alaska, across to eastern Siberia and down through the southern Pacific island chains, New Zealand and south of Australia and Tasmania. The 'nearly unbroken' part of that is especially noticeable in one of the final images of the animation, shown below, which shows all of the earthquakes logged during the past decade.


Credit: NOAA/NWS/PTWC

The vast majority of the earthquakes that occur along the 'ring' are tiny - so light that we'd barely notice them - however the region also counts among those some of the most powerful earthquakes on the planet.

2) The 2004 'Boxing Day' Earthquake and Tsunami

Shortly after the video begins (at just 10 seconds in), there is a large, bright flash on the left side of the animation. The large orange circle left behind in the aftermath of it (shown below) is the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.


A snapshot of the day after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: NOAA/NWS/PTWC

2004 Indonesia Tsunami Complete.gif
Credit: Vasily V. Titov, NOAA/PMEL - UW/JISAO

This megathrust quake, which registering as between magnitude 9.1 and 9.3, struck the to the west of Indonesia, under the ocean. The massive upthrust of the sea floor set off a tsunami that rippled throughout the Indian Ocean, washing across everything in its path.

The earthquake, which lasted between 8 and 10 minutes, goes down in the books as 2nd worst earthquake since record-keeping began in 1900. It was so powerful that it actually caused the entire planet to vibrate by as much as a centimetre - like someone rang the planet's surface like an enormous bell.

The tsunami - in the animation shown to the right - ranks as the worst, and deadliest, ever recorded, with waves up to 30 metres high sweeping across some areas.

To this date, the final toll of this devastating event still isn't fully known. It's estimated that up to 230,000 people lost their lives that day, with over 125,000 injured, over 45,000 missing, and nearly 1.75 million people displaced as a result.

3) The 2011 'Great East Japan Earthquake'

At 1 minute, 26 seconds into the video is an earthquake that was nearly a match for the 2004 quake, at magnitude 9.0. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake (aka the Great East Japan Earthquake) is estimated to have shifted the axis of our planet by up to 25 centimetres, and it was followed by over 11,000 aftershocks - some even registering as late as September 2014!


A snapshot of the day after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Credit: NOAA/NWS/PTWC


Propagation of the 2011 tsunami. Credit: NOAA

This had to be the most extensively documented earthquake and tsunami ever, with pictures and video available from nearly every region affected by the quake itself, and from all along the east coast of Japan - which was inundated by a powerful tsunami that over 40 metres high in some areas and pushed up to 10 kilometres inland.

Nearly 16,000 people were killed, with over 6,100 recorded injuries and over 2,600 reported missing.

At a total estimated cost - not just of the disaster itself but including all economic factors in the aftermath - of $235 billion dollars, this disaster ranks as the costliest natural disaster in history.

The Next Big One?

Forecasting earthquakes is difficult, at best, and nearly impossible in any practical sense. That doesn't stop scientists from studying them, in an effort to see if there is any way to tell when the next one is going to occur. If a reliable forecast system could be developed, it could save countless lives.

The best we have, at the moment, is a look at how often big earthquakes occur at any specific location, which gives us a broad sense of when they might happen again.

Still, the west coast of North America, including areas of British Columbia, are at risk for some sizable quakes in the future. According to Dr. Brent Ward, a professor of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University who spoke to The Weather Network in September 2013, the 'Big One' for the the Pacific Northwest, including Vancouver, could measure up to magnitude 9.0 and include a tsunami that could be just as devastating to the area as the events in 2004 and 2011. The only question is when.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: "New research puts Vancouver at the heart of some unsettling seismic activity."

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