Physical, Environmental and Economic Impact of 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami


Japan’s Tohoku 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit the area on March 2011 was a devastating blow that caused unprecedented damage. The damage was magnified in that the disaster was actually two natural disasters in one; both of epic proportions. The Earthquake 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck first, and then triggered the tsunami. The two fold nature of the disaster was significant in that it revealed imperfections in region’s disaster resilience and preparation plans. The impacts of the disaster can be divided into three inextricably intertwined categories: Physical, Environmental and Economic. The timelines for the impact and recovery of these three categories are also related. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster a lot of emphasis is usually put on the physical damage because it is the easiest to observe. Therefore we will start by considering the short and long term physical impacts of the disaster.

Physical Impact

In Tohoku’s case the physical damage was exacerbated by the fact that the Earth quake served as a disaster primer of sorts. Infrastructure, already weakened by the earthquake, was easily finished off by the Tsunami. What this double hit revealed in hindsight was that the region seemed to be mostly earthquake ready lacked in comparison lacked its tsunami preparedness. This is why we find that the physical structures and in particular the bridges, for the most part withstood the strain of the earthquake. According to a January 2012 EERI Special report, “The earthquake also demonstrated that protection systems such as seismic isolation and supplemental damping are effective at reducing nonstructural earthquake damage.” [1]. Recovery physical damage is also a largely a function of the availability of funds and resources. We could postulate that physical damage impact is relatively easy to overcome because the timeline for recovery can often be as short as is determined by the resources available. The ERRI report states that many buildings and structures were repaired in as little as three months [1]

Environmental Impact

Closely related to physical damage is the environment impact. Overshadowing the havoc caused by debris and the displacement of materials and earth was the physical damage to the Nuclear power plant Fukushima. The resultant radiation contamination made its way across the Pacific to even as far as South America! The ocean’s surface served as an especially effective mode of transportation for radioactive debris and other materials. This nuclear disaster basically rendered areas around it inhabitable for a long time to come.  In Tohoku’s case the scope of environmental damage has the potential to dwarf the more localized physical damage. We would then consider environment damage to be a longer term problem.

Economic Impact

The economic impacts of any disaster are not just measured by the monetary loss of physical property. They also encompass its cascading negative effects on other communities to which the disaster area is directly or indirectly through among other things, commerce, geospatial proximity and even politics. Of the three categories economic impact this may be the most difficult to measure. Not only was the immediate area’s commercial activity decimated, it also cause a domino effect of shortages which were felt across the world. The area is known for its automobile manufacturing industry. Nissan and Toyota were adversely affected. A lot of their parts and automobiles were sourced from this region. Bloomberg news reported in 2011 Nissan’ full year profits dropped 15% as result of shortages and production disruptions emanating from the disaster. [2] This is just one obvious example of the disaster’s effects. However, there are other indirect economic repercussions of the disaster that do not make the news but are just as devastating. All along the global supply chain jobs were lost and communities were adversely affected. Finding an accurate measure of this is impossible but one thing that is certain is that if it were to be put in dollar terms, it would surpass the ~$300 physical recovery bill.


  1. “Earthquake Earthquake Report.” Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Sept. 2014. <>.
  2. “Nissan’s Annual Profit to Drop 15% After Japan Quake Disrupts Output.” Bloomberg, n.d. Web. 5 Sept. 2014. <>.





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