2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Its Effects on the Environment, Economy, and Society

Earthquakes are among the worst natural disasters on the Earth since their effects are extremely dangerous. The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake drastically affected Japanese environment, economy, and society. Financial and economic effects were felt not only in Japan but also the East Asian region, the United States, and all the world to some extent. Firstly, it led to 28,000 deaths, billions of man-hours on the restoration of caused damage, and loss of 6% of Japan’s GDP. A radiation leak on the Fukushima nuclear power plant caused a very serious disaster. Japan will feel the effects of the earthquake form many years to come.

On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake changed Japan. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JAMA) (2011), the epicenter of the earthquake was 125 kilometers east coast of Honshu and at the depth of 24 kilometers. The cracks, which were formed after the earthquake in the seafloor, were around 3-6 feet wide and 10,500-17,500 feet deep (JMA, 2011). This earthquake was the strongest in Japan’s recorded history and the fourth strongest earthquake in the recorded history of the planet. The Tohoku earthquake was a huge reverse fault (ocean-type) earthquake that occurred at a plate boundary with a west-northwest to east-southeast compression axis. Its magnitude (M) equals 9.0. The earthquake has caused significant damages to environment, economy, and society, which is considered below.

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Effects to the Environment

Damage to the nuclear power plant Fukushima was the main environment effect from the earthquake. The radiation contamination spread across the Pacific to even remote regions of South America. This nuclear disaster made areas around it inhabitable for a very long time. Seismic waves of the Tohoku earthquake sped up the Antarctic ice stream. Moreover, the speed of the Whillans glacier increased temporarily and the glacier itself moved by 1.5 feet.

In addition, the earthquake cracked icebergs in Antarctica that were 8,000 miles (13,600 kilometers) away from the epicenter of the quake (Nanto et al., 2011). This happened in about 18 hours after the earthquake. The waves chipped away several pieces of ice (150 square kilometers of glacier area). The huge earthquake has its devastating effects not only on the land itself but also on the atmosphere, generating the vibration in electrically charged particles 220 miles (350 kilometers) above its epicenter. Scientists study this occurrence in order to search for warning signs for tsunamis.

The earthquake was so strong that it changed the gravitation. Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) shows that the quake thinned the crust and caused the reduction in the local gravity field. It was found that the earthquake had increased Earth’s spin, and as a result, day reduced by 1.8 microseconds (MHLW, 2012). This speed-up was caused by the distribution of the Earth’s mass after the earthquake.



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Effects for the Economy

Physical damage for the economy of Japan was valued at $305 billion (almost 6 GDPs). The northern regions of Japan suffered from the direct damage from the earthquake, while its financial and economic effects were felt not only in Japan but also the East Asian region, the United States and all the world to some degree. Japan is the third largest economy in the world, with a strong influence on the global economy. Thus, the country’s key ports and airports were closed. As a result, the global supply chain of semiconductor equipment and materials experienced shortages. Japan’s semiconductor products constitute 20% of the world’s supply as, for example, Apple uses Japan’s NAND flash. Japan also produces some parts of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner (MHLW, 2012). Numerous plants were stopped, including 12 automakers, Sony (electronics), Hitachi (equipment for power plants), NEC (electronics), Renesas Electronics (semiconductors), and Fujitsu (computers). This closure caused harm to China, South Korea, and other Asian countries as their manufacturing plants received their supplies from Japanese parts. Three of the six refineries were stopped. The Tohoku earthquake influenced the financial and currency markets of Japan, thus adding instability to the financial markets of the Wall Street and in the world. To support its economy, Japan had to double its debt that in 2011 already equaled two annual productions.

Many fishery and agricultural areas in Japan suffered from the widespread devastation from the 2011 Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Losses to agricultural lands, crops and equipment were recorded in several prefectures, including Akita, Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, Ibaraki, Chiba, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Yamanashi, Nagano, Fukushima, Niigata, Mie and others. In Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures catastrophic damages to harbor facilities and fish vessels were observed among fisheries. Japanese fisheries and agricultural industries constitute a small proportion (less than 2%) of the country’s total annual GDP.  However, these industries are of great importance for the country’s total economy and governmental policy. The core food commodities of Japan include fish and seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts, rice, dairy and poultry products. Agricultural production totals about $70 billion annually, while the value of Japan’s fishery products accounts $14 billion.

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The government of Japan took measures to limit the spread of potentially contaminated food. On March 23, 2011, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare issued a number of statements that restricted the consumption and distribution of certain products, including vegetables such as komatsuna, cabbages, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, kakina, and spinach, gathered in Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma, Ibaraki and prefectures; as well as raw dairy products produced in Fukushima prefecture. The Ministry’s statement was also cited by Nanto et al. (2011): “ in Fukushima Prefecture, there is no possibility for shore fishing in the sea area … due to the coast damage caused by the earthquake” (p. 15). After such announcements, Hong Kong, Australia, China, Singapore, South Korea, Philippines, India, the European Union, and Canada increased the inspection of products, imported from Japan (Nanto et al., 2011). The United States issued an “Import Alert” concerning the importation of all dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables, produced or gathered from the Ibaraki, Fukushima, Gunma, and Tochigi prefectures.

Effects on Society

The greatest public tragedy, caused by the earthquake, was the death of 28,000 people in Japan. Most of them were searched for days and months. More than 196,000 buildings were damaged (totally or partially). A quarter of a million people were evacuated, while 2.3 million homes were left without potable water in such regions as Sennan, Senen, Ishinomaki, and Osaki. More than 300,000 houses were left without gas. Some of them waited for gas recovery for 10 months after the earthquake. Moreover, 100,000 workers from 49 Japanese gas companies were involved in the restoration of gas supply. At the same time, 2,126 roads and 56 bridges were destroyed. About 540 electrification columns of railways were damaged as well as 12 water drainage systems (Branigan, 2011). On the coast of the Sendai Bay, almost all sections of the coastal levee were damaged or completely destroyed. Agricultural lands were flooded. The earthquake damaged ports in the northern Tohoku Region, Ishinomaki, and Sendai Shiogama.

The negative effects of the earthquake and tsunami were reinforced by the Fukushima nuclear crisis and the subsequent radioactive contamination. Eleven of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors were closed, thus leading to shortages of electricity (Branigan, 2011). As a result, Japan had to import oil. Higher radiation levels were detected in Tokyo’s water supply and milk, vegetables from the area of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Radiation leaked into the Pacific Ocean and raised legal level limit to 4000 times.


The Tohoku earthquake had a significant impact on the environment, economy, and society not only of Japan but the economy of the entire world. The negative effects of the earthquake and tsunami were seen in the loss of 28,000 lives, damage to infrastructure, ports, water drainage systems Thus, more than 196,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed as well as manufacturing plants and other buildings. More than 300,000 houses were left without gas, while 2.3 million homes were left without potable water; 2,126 roads and 56 bridges were destroyed or badly damaged. The displacement of landmass, losses to agricultural lands, crops and equipment were recorded in several prefectures, tens of plants were stopped, while the damage to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima led to radiation contamination of the area and the ocean. The destructive force of the earthquake even reached Antarctica, thus accelerating the movement of glaciers and their damage. Japan requires hundreds of billions of dollars for the restoration of caused damage.

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