Lab 3 – Plate Tectonics and the Seafloor

On March 11, 2011 a 9.1 magnitude earthquake occurred 130 km (81 mi) east of Sendai, Japan. The earthquake was generated at a depth of 29 km (18 mi). Sendai is the largest city in the Tohoku region of northern Japan. The earthquake was the largest quake recorded in Japanese history and the 4th largest in the world since records began in 1900. The earthquake caused widespread damage throughout northern Japan and shook buildings in Tokyo. In some locations, the land literally moved as much as 2.5 m (8 ft) eastward.

Epicenter location for the 2011 Tohuku Earthquake (image copyright: Benjamin R. Jordan, used with permission; underlying map image credit: UNAVCO).

Shortly after the earthquake (about 8 minutes later) a large tsunami wave inundated the Tohoku region. Along much of the coast, the tsunami was 10 m (33 ft) in height, but in some locations, it reached a height of 29.6 m (97 ft).

Over 15,000 people were confirmed to be killed, with nearly 5,000 still missing. Thousands of others were injured. In addition, 450,000 people were left homeless as the tsunami destroyed thousands of boats, homes and businesses. The tsunami travelled throughout the Pacific, reaching as far as North America, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and even caused an iceberg to calve from the Sulzberger Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake resulted from plate tectonic interactions that may, or may not, be similar to those found in the northeast Pacific Ocean region near the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon.  This lab is designed to help you understand the potential for similar hazards in the northeast Pacific.

Activities in this Lab

Learning outcomes

  • LO1. Apply their learned background into a real scenario using improved data skills.
  • LO2. Identify seafloor features and their relationships using earthquake data.
  • LO3. Determine plate tectonic settings by connecting real-world relationships to background knowledge.
  • LO4. Articulate some of the challenges that scientists face when data does not fit simple models.
  • LO5. Develop a reasonable hypothesis for the potential natural hazards in the studied area.

Background information

  • Key terms: earthquake, epicenter, seamount, mid-ocean ridge, transform zone, subduction, tsunami
  • Data collection sources:
  • Sensors: The OOI cabled array uses many instruments to monitor the Axial Seamount Volcano. These instruments collect data on such things as ocean salinity and ocean chemistry, seawater pressure, as well as changes in hydrothermal vents. For this activity, data was collected by ocean bottom seismometers (OBSs), which detect and monitor earthquake events (see sidebar).
  • Ocean Bottom Seismometers: Seismometers are instruments that detect shaking and vibrations at the surface of, or within, the earth. The farther an earthquake wave travels, the weaker and harder to detect it becomes. OBSs are designed to be placed on the seafloor, close to the areas that are being studied, in order to collect reliable data. They are used throughout the world’s oceans by oceanographers and marine geologists and geophysicists to answer questions about plate tectonic movement, underwater volcanic processes, and the behavior of the deep earth.
  • Other need-to-know scientific background: Students should be familiar with general plate tectonic processes, the types of plate boundaries and the specific geologic features associated with those boundaries (i.e. mid-ocean ridge = divergent boundary, explosive volcanoes and/or deep sea trench = convergent boundary, etc.), the basic cause and process of earthquake formation, and the relationship between tsunami formation and earthquakes.