• 12.16.11

The Next Japan-Sized Tsunami Could Be Predicted By Computers

What makes some earthquakes cause deadly tidal waves? Stanford researchers are coming up with a computer model that can answer that question, so coastal communities could be alerted long before the wave arrives.

For all of our technological prowess, humans are still pretty bad at predicting natural disasters. The next time a mega-tsunami happens, though, we may be prepared. Scientists at Stanford have developed computational models of what happened in Japan’s 2010 tsunami disaster to predict when similar tsunamis might strike elsewhere.


For anyone who somehow missed the cascading series of events this past March, here’s what happened: A magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off Japan’s coast, triggering a tsunami that looked like something out of a horror film. Over 20,000 people were killed, and the resulting nuclear disaster will have consequences for decades.

After the disaster, Stanford researchers started running simulations of what happened during the disaster using high-performance parallel processors at the university and in Texas. It’s a feat that would take nearly a decade on a single computer, but can be done in a matter of days with these mega-computers.

The researchers now believe the seafloor uplift that caused the tsunami happened when seismic waves released by the massive earthquake bounced down from the seafloor and triggered the Pacific Plate beneath to slip. That slipping wasn’t completely unexpected–Japan’s northeast coast is in a subduction zone, or a place where one tectonic plate slides under another (in this case, the Pacific Plate slides under Japan’s islands). What was surprising to Stanford’s researchers: just how much the plate slipped.

The simulations could prove helpful in pinpointing where the next big tsunami will occur. “What we found in our simulations, in certain cases, the rupture will actually stop short of the sea floor and that will lead to a smaller tsunami,” explained Jeremy Kozdon, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford, in a video. “In other cases we’ve been able to identify the conditions where the rupture can propagate all the way up to the seafloor, cause a large seafloor uplift, and cause a large tsunami.”

What happened in Japan is a once-in-a-millennium event, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen elsewhere. U.S. and Canadian residents living near the Cascadia subduction zone–including people in Vancouver, BC; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington–face a similar threat. An accurate computer simulation could give residents a much-needed heads-up to run for the hills.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.