The Showa Sanriku earthquake of 1933 March 2: A global seismological reassessment

Emile A. Okal*, Stephen H. Kirby, Nikos Kalligeris

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


After 83 yr, the great normal-faulting earthquake of 1933 March 2, which took place off the Japan Trench and produced a devastating tsunami on the Sanriku coast and damaging waves in Hawaii, remains the largest recorded normal-faulting earthquake. This study uses advanced methods to investigate this event using far-field seismological and tsunami data and complements a sister study by Uchida et al. which used exclusively arrival times at Japanese stations. Our relocation of the main shock (39.22°N, 144.45°E, with a poorly constrained depth of less than 40 km) places it in the outer trench slope, below a seafloor depth of ~6500 m, in a region of horst-and-graben structure, with fault scarps approximately parallel to the axis of the Japan Trench. Relocated aftershocks show a band of genuine shallow aftershocks parallel to the Japan Trench under the outer trench slope and a region of post-mainshock events landward of the trench axis that occur over roughly the same latitude range and are thought to be the result of stress transfer to the interplate thrust boundary following the normalfaulting rupture. Based on a combination of P-wave first motions and inversion of surface wave spectral amplitudes, we propose a normal-faulting focal mechanism (φ = 200°, δ = 61° and λ= 271°) and a seismic moment M0 = (7 ± 1) × 1028 dyn cm (Mw = 8.5). A wide variety of data, including the distribution of isoseismals, the large magnitudes (up to 8.9) proposed by early investigators before the standardization of magnitude scales, estimates of energy-to-moment ratios and the tentative identification of a T wave at Pasadena (and possibly Riverside), clearly indicate that this seismic source was exceptionally rich in high-frequency wave energy, suggesting a large apparent stress and a sharp rise time, and consistent with the behaviour of many smaller shallow normal-faulting earthquakes. Hydrodynamic simulations based on a range of possible sources consistent with the above findings, including a compound rupture on two opposite-facing normal-faulting segments, are in satisfactory agreement with tsunami observations in Hawaii, where run-up reached 3 m, causing significant damage. This study emphasizes the need to include off-trench normal-faulting earthquake sources in global assessments of tsunami hazards emanating from the subduction of old and cold plates, whose total length of trenches exceed 20 000 km, even though only a handful of great such events are known with confidence in the instrumental record.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1492-1514
Number of pages23
JournalGeophysical Journal International
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Earthquake source observations
  • Intra-plate processes
  • Tsunamis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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