Large earthquake on Japan’s west coast points to a profound shortcoming in the national seismic hazard model
By Sara E. Pratt
On Tuesday, June 18, 2019, a magnitude-6.4 quake struck the west coast of Honshu along the eastern Sea of Japan. The quake was shallow — 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) deep — and only 6 kilometers (3.7 kilometers) offshore, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its proximity to the cities of Tsuruoka and Sakata, both of which have populations of about 100,000, meant many were exposed to shaking. No one was killed, 21 people were injured, and despite the shallow depth, infrastructure damage was minimal. But the quake was a reminder that this region has experienced several large inland quakes over the last 15 years, and could again. In fact, two magnitude-6.8 earthquakes struck near the hypocenter of this week’s quake in Niigata in 2004 and 2007. The 2004 Niigata-Chuetsu quake killed 40 people, injured 3,000 and damaged more than 6,000 homes, and the 2007 Niigata quake killed seven people, injured more than 830 and destroyed 500 houses.
“The tectonic situation, epicenter offshore near the coast, and the size of the quakes are quite similar,” says Prof. Shinji Toda, a geophysicist at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University who studies inland quakes.
Crucially, the hazard of large earthquakes striking off the coasts of Yamagata and Niigata prefectures is being underestimated by Japan’s national earthquake hazard models, according to some seismologists.
“The government is underestimating the probability of magnitude-7.5 to -7.8 events along the eastern Sea of Japan,” says Prof. Toda. “It misleads the general public [that] we will not have any large events near the coast of Yamagata and Niigata.”
The June 18 thrust fault rupture (where the crust is being compressed horizontally) occurred on the eastern margin of the Sea of Japan in a seismic zone where numerous active faults accommodate the strain of east-west crustal shortening transmitted from the subduction of the Pacific Plate, says Prof. Toda.
During the past 5-25 million years (the Miocene epoch), this region underwent ‘backarc’ extension (stretching), opening what is now the eastern Sea of Japan. Those tensional faults have now been reactivated, with their sense of slip reversed, as thrust faults. Thus, “the hazard of inland large quakes is always high,” Prof. Toda says.
Although the country’s east coast, where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the North American and Eurasian plates in the Japan Trench, is more prone to large thrust quakes like the March 2011 magnitude-9 Tohoku megathrust quake, the west coast of Japan also is quite seismically active, a fact that is not being adequately accounted for in Japan’s earthquake hazard model, says geophysicist and Temblor CEO Ross Stein.
Japan’s earthquake hazard models are released by the Japan Seismic Hazard Information Station (J-SHIS). The J-SHIS model uses inputs based on known faults, historical quakes and assumes fairly regular recurrence intervals. It has been criticized for underestimating the hazard of future the Tohoku quake, whose tsunami killed more than 18,000 people.
Scientists and officials in “Japan have done their very best to create a model that they think reflects future earthquake occurrence based on the expectation of regularity in the size and recurrence behavior of earthquakes. They have also built in the expectation that the longer it’s been since the last large earthquake, the more likely the next one is,” Stein says.
The J-SHIS model thus anticipates a strong likelihood that the next megaquake will occur in the Nankai Trough, off the southeast coast of Honshu, where two deadly magnitude-8.1 quakes struck in the 1940s. The 1944 Tōnankai and the 1946 Nankaidō quakes both triggered tsunamis and killed more than 1,200 and 1,400 people, respectively. “The Japanese model is putting all of its weight on this area, southeast of Tokyo and Nagoya,” Stein says.
Another model, the Global Earthquake Activity Rate (GEAR) forecast, that was developed by a team from UCLA, University of Nevada Reno, and Temblor, and is used in the Temblor app, indicates that quakes on the west coast of Honshu could likely reach magnitude-7 or magnitude-7.5 in the typical resident’s lifetime.
Unlike traditional earthquake hazard models, GEAR does not include active faults or historical earthquakes, which are not uniformly available around the globe. Instead, GEAR takes a global approach that uses only two factors: the stress that drives quakes (measured by GPS) and the events that release that stress, represented in the model by a complete global record of all quakes greater than magnitude-5.7 that have occurred over the past 40 years (from the Global CMT catalog).
“What the GEAR model says is that the Tohoku coast is a lot more likely to produce a large earthquake than the Japan Sea side, but the Japan Sea side is still quite active,” Stein says. “It should produce large earthquakes and has.”
Significant historical earthquakes in the shear zone along the eastern Sea of Japan include the 1964 magnitude-7.5 Niigata earthquake, the 1983 magnitude-7.7 Nihonkai-Chubu earthquake and the 1993 magnitude-7.8 Hokkaido-Nansei-Oki earthquake.