Awareness & Education

15-March-2011: 3 days after the 11 March 2011 Earthquake off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku, Japan

Three days after the devastating M8.9 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, a grim picture is emerging of the death and destruction wreaked by the tsunami and once again the world is reminded of the deadly force of the ocean. The scenes transmitted around the world have shocked us all, and the IOC sends it condolences to the people of Japan and pledges to continue its efforts to coordinate the implementation and improvement of tsunami warning systems globally.

The earthquake struck at 0546Z on 11 March with its epicenter some 130km east of the coast of Miyagi prefecture. The magnitude of the earthquake is now estimated by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) as M9.0, making it the 4th largest recorded earthquake since 1900. There have been hundreds of aftershocks since the main earthquake, many greater than magnitude 6. The first tsunami wave arrived at the coastline nearest to the epicenter within about 15 minutes of the earthquake and in the hours that followed more waves arrived, in places 10m or even higher. Whole communities were washed away and much infrastructure was destroyed.

tsunamitraveltimes300The tsunami propagated east into the Pacific Ocean and the first regional tsunami bulletins were issued by the North West Pacific Tsunami Advisory Centre (NWPTAC) operated by JMA and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) at 0555Z. Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys close to Japan were triggered and a wave of 1.08m amplitude (mean level to peak) was recorded at DART21418 at 0619Z, confirming that a large tsunami had been generated and was propagating eastward. The tsunami travel time and energy maps generated by the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre (WC/ATWC) shows the initial estimate of travel time across the ocean and the directionality of the wave energy.

PTWC initially issued wide spread tsunami warning bulletins for most Pacific Ocean countries and later reduced the number of countries on the basis of updated model results. In total, PTWC issued 27 bulletins during the event and NWPTAC issued 9 bulletins. The WC/ATWC issued its first bulletin at 0600Z and issued a total of 34 bulletins during the event. For a complete inventory of factual information about the event and the warning bulletins issued please see this link

Across the Pacific Ocean, countries were prepared well in advance for the arrival of the tsunami waves. Hawaii ordered statewide evacuations as waves of over 2m (trough to peak) passed the islands. The west coast of the USA experienced waves of over 4m (trough to peak) at Crescent City. Waves of over 4m (trough to peak) were also measured down the coast of Chile.

The role of the IOC in tsunami warning is to coordinate the regional tsunami warning systems through its Tsunami Unit. Since the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the UN has mandated the IOC to lead the coordination of Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS), based on its more than 45 years of coordinating the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (PTWS). Similar systems in the Caribbean (CARIBE-EWS) and the North-Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean (NEAMTWS) are also coordinated by the IOC. Each system is governed by an Intergovernmental Coordination Group (ICG) which reports directly to the IOC Assembly. The ICGs therefore operate at a high-level, allowing the Member States to collaborate for the collective benefit of all the countries in each ocean basin. tsunami_noaa_energy_plot20110311_300

During this event, the PTWS operated well and according to expectations. The seismic detection systems were able to identify the location and magnitude of the earthquake within minutes allowing for timely regional warnings to be issued to the Pacific Ocean countries. The DART buoys and sea level monitoring stations worked well and the communications systems allowed for near real-time monitoring of the event. The Regional Tsunami Warning Centres issued timely bulletins and kept the National Tsunami Warning Centres of the PTWS well informed and updated on the progress of the tsunami.

However, it seems inappropriate to talk of any "success" in an event that has caused so much loss of life and extensive damage to infrastructure and livelihoods. Since 2004, there have been a number of deadly tsunamis: south Java in 2006; Solomons and Chile in 2007, Samoa/American Samoa/Tonga in 2009; Haiti, Chile and Mentawai (Indonesia) in 2010; and now the Tohoku tsunami in Japan. What each of these has in common is that they were local, rapid onset events, where tsunami waves arrived on the shore quickly, and in some places before warnings were issued or before people could evacuate to safety. The horrific scenes of destruction that we have witnessed through the media over the last three days should act as another reminder for countries with communities living close to potentially tsunamigenic zones to step up their efforts to develop awareness, preparedness and mitigation measures. Communities must learn to recognize the natural warning signs and act immediately to save their lives. Focused research is also required to continue updating our knowledge about subduction zones capable of generating great earthquakes and tsunamis. The IOC stands ready to support these activities in collaboration with partners and is more than ever committed to the goal of developing effective end-to-end tsunami warning systems at the regional, national and local level.

12-March-2011: IOC Coordinated Tsunami Warning System Plays Key Role in Japanese Emergency


The Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which has been coordinated by the IOC of UNESCO with cooperation from other UN agencies and dozens of nations, was called into action by the high-magnitude earthquake and subsequent destructive tsunami which occurred 11 March, 2011 05:46 (GMT). Within three minutes of the earthquake, the Japanese Meteorological Agency issued a Major Tsunami Warning. Six minutes later warnings or watches were issued for islands from the South Pacific to Hawaii, as well as Japan and Russia.

JMAInitialTsunamiObservation200The Japanese Meteorological Agency monitors sea level gauges continuously in real time and reported these observed tsunami measurments. (c) JMA

Tsunami Warning System sea level gauges immediately reported the arrival and amplitude of tsunami waves along the Japanese Coast (  In the subsequent 24 hours, the Tsunami waves were tracked across the ocean, and warnings were issued for North and South America.

The IOC Tsunami Warning Centers ( work in close cooperation with national agencies. The IOC is primarily concerned with international coordination among nations, while the operational duties of the centers reside with national agencies.   For instance in the Pacific, the Japanese Meteorological Agency, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre have operational responsibility for issuing international advisories to country national authorities.  The JMA has been an integral part of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which was established under the leadership of IOC in 1965.  Since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the UN has designated the IOC to lead in the coordination of regional Tsunami Warning and Mitigation Systems in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and the North-eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean.


Tsunami early warning systems are based on observation networks of seismometers and sea level measuring stations, which send real time data to national and regional tsunami warning centers (TWCs). Based on these observations, TWCs are able to evaluate the potential for a given earthquake to generate a tsunami, and confirm or cancel a tsunami warning advisory. When a potentially destructive tsunami is detected, national authorities decide if a tsunami warning and an evacuation order must be issued to their public.

Sophisticated ocean wave models are now used to predict the cross ocean pathways of tsunami propogation. These results can be used with minutes of tsunami detection to guide warnings and advisories across the oceans. (c) NOAA West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center energylhvpd9-04

Tsunami warning systems are complete end to end warning systems, involving advanced technology, as well as comprehensive learning activities to teach coastal populations about tsunami danger and how to respond to a tsunami. For local tsunamis, where the wave arrives in minutes, everyone must recognize the natural tsunami warning signs and act immediately to save their lives by moving to higher ground.  The priority of the IOC programmes is to reduce risk, by encouraging communities to implement effective preventive measures and become aware of the hazards they face.

The IOC conducted the East Africa and West Indian Ocean Training Workshop on Tsunami Warning and Emergency Response Standard Operating Procedures, 15-19 November 2010, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 26 participants from 8 countries (Comoros, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania) attended. Trainers were from Pakistan and IOC (Paris, ITIC, Perth).




Japan Tsunami Event 11 March 2011

Observed water heights and calculated tsunami travel times, 11 March 2011

Observed water heights and calculated tsunami travel times, 11 March 2011


The 11 March 2011 M9.0 earthquake generated a devastating local tsunami that struck the Pacific coast of Honshu within about 20 minutes.   The Japan National Police Agency reports 13,895 persons killed and 13,864 persons missing from the earthquake and tsunami. 141,343 residents are still staying at evacuation shelters.  The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group ( reports highest tsunami runup heights at Sendai in the 15-20 m range.  The 11 March 2011 Japanese tsunami was the first to cause deaths since the 1993 Sea of Japan magnitude 7.7 earthquake caused 23 deaths and generated a tsunami that caused an additional 208, and the most fatal tsunami globally since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami generated off Sumatra, Indonesia that killed nearly 230,000 across the Indian Ocean.

The Japan Meteorological Agency’s national tsunami warning center issued a tsunami warning 3 minutes after the earthquake triggering the alerting process that immediately broadcasted by mass media and locally activated sirens and other mitigation countermeasures such as flood gate closures.   Live video of the advancing tsunami waves and their impact on structures at the coast was aired by Japan NHK television and seen at the same time globally.  Despite Japan’s sustained and globally-recognized excellence in tsunami preparedness, many casualties resulted and again reminded us of the swiftness and destructive power of tsunamis.  Waves overtopped  tsunami walls and destroyed many structures, especially wooden homes.  Nonetheless, some tall reinforced concrete buildings and evacuation platforms did survive and allowed citizens to shelter in place by vertically evacuating.  Tsunami waves also caused huge infrastructure damage to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in the meltdown of core reactors and local emission of dangerous radiation.  Like the previous tsunamis, drowning was the main cause of death, with casualties greatest in the elderly.

The tsunami also propagated across the entire Pacific Ocean, with runups up to 5 m and $8 million in damage to harbors and homes in Hawaii 7 hours later, up to 3 m and $20 million in damage in California 12 hours later, and up to 3 m heights and more than $4 million in damage 22 hours later in Chile.  Outside of Japan, 1 person died in California, USA, and 1 person died in Papua, Indonesia.



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Regional Disaster Information Center (Latin America & the Caribbean)

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Post-Tsunami Survey:
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Global Hazard Maps

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Tsunami, The Great Waves

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Tsunami Glossary

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Where the First Wave Arrives in Minutes

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