George Pararas-Carayannis


On 15 November 2006, a great earthquake occurred off the coast near the Kuril Islands. In spite of the quake’s large 8.3 magnitude, a relatively small tsunami was generated. The small tsunami was recorded or observed in Japan and at distant locations throughout the Pacific.

Date and Time of Occurrence

Wednesday, November 15, 2006, at 11:14:16 (UTC)_= Coordinated Universal Time (Local date and time at epicenter: Wednesday, November 15, 2006, at 10:14:16 PM )

Epicenter Location 

Latitude: 46.616°N, Longitude: 153.224°E near the Kuril Islands, Russia USGS NEIC (WDCS-D)Distances

The earthquake occurred:
245 miles east of the island of Etorofu (Japanese name) or Iturup (Russian name), which is about 110 miles northeast of Hokkaido, Japan.
440 km () ENE of Kuril’sk, Kuril Islands, 443 kilometers (about 277 miles east-northeast of Kuril’sk
500 km (310 miles) SSW of Severo-Kuril’sk, Kuril Islands, Russia and
1650 km (103 miles) northeast of Tokyo, Japan.

Magnitude – 8.3

Focal Depth – 28.5 km (17.7 miles)

Aftershocks – There were many aftershocks after the main quake. Four large aftershocks measured 6.5, 6.3, 6.0 and 6.2

Seismic Activity in the Region – There was significant seismic activity in the region since September 2006

USGS Graphic of Earthquake Epicenter and Aftershocks

Seismicity of the Northern Japan/Kuril island Region

The Kuril islands and Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions in the world. _Around 20 per cent of the world’s earthquakes take place in this region. The seismicity of Northern Japan is the result of a double seismic zone (DSZ), and compressional deep trench and outer rise events and by the magmatic effects of plumes or superplumes which, originally, may have hydrated the subducting oceanic lithosphere. Usually, shallow normal faulting occurs in the trench-outer rise region.

The volcanic Kuril island chain runs from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. It is also a region of high seismic activity.

The area where the November 15, 2006 earthquake occurred had earthquakes over a magnitude of 8.0 in 1952, 1963, 1994 and 2003.

Damages and Death Toll from Earthquake and Tsunami

There were no reports of damage or injuries, according to NHK (Japan). At Hokkaido Prefecture all trains were stopped as a precautionary measure.

Tectonic Setting of the Northern Japan/Kuril Island Region

The overall tectonics of northeast Asia are very complicated. Whether the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Japanese islands are part of the North American plate or of a separate Okhotsk plate has not been determined. On the Pacific Ocean side, earthquake slip vectors along the Kuril and Japan trenches are consistent with either a Pacific-North America or a Pacific-Okhotsk plate motion. We will assume that the Pacific-North America plate motion is better supported.

The Kuril island arc is located between the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The Kuril Trench has been formed by the subduction of the Pacific plate under the North American plate. It extends from the offshore central area of Kamchatka to Hokkaido.

The plate tectonics of the Southern Kuril islands-Northern Hokkaido region are quite complex and very different than those along the southern portion of the Japanese Trench. The South Kuril Islands are part of the Kuril arc in the Okhotsk plate which has been colliding westward against the Northeast Japan arc, along the Hidaka Collision Zone (HCZ), where new continental crust is created by the active arc-arc collision.

Deep seismic reflection studies (Ito, Kazuka @Abe, 2001) show the lower crust of the Kuril arc to be delaminated at a depth of about 23 km. These studies indicate that the upper half (above 23 km) – consisting of the earth’s upper crust and the upper portion of lower crust of the Kuril arc – is thrusting over the Northeast Japan arc along the Hidaka Main Thrust (HMT). However, the lower half (below 23 km) – consisting of the lower portion of the lower crust and upper mantle material – is descending downward.

Ocean bottom morphology of Kamchatka, the Kuril Island Trench, Sakhalin Island, and the Sea of Okhotsk.

As a result of such kinematic processes, the wedge of the Northeast Japan arc is intruded into the delaminated Kuril arc, as the Pacific plate is subducting northward beneath both of the above-mentioned structures, thus continuing the arc-arc collision (and continental crust production). The complex, seismotectonic kinematic process of this region has been named “Delamination-wedge-subduction system” – which may apply also to other areas where active arc-arc collision and concurrent subduction take place.

Accordingly, Hokkaido – Japan’s northernmost island – extends northeast into the Kuril Islands and is composed of multiple compressed island arcs. The northern half of Honshu (north of Tokyo), which is Japan’s main island, represents a typical mature island arc, while the southern half of the island represents also a typical mature island arc, as the Philippine Sea plate subducts below the Eurasian plate.

On the western side, the Sea of Japan is a complex basin between Japan and the Korea/Okhotsk Sea Basin. It represents another subplate with apparent rotational movement as it interacts against the Okhotsk plate, along the inland sea boundary of the Hidaka Collision Zone (HCZ). Sakhalin Island, north of Hokkaido, which separates the Sea of Japan from the Sea of Okhotsk, is probably the result of transpressional tectonics along the North America-Eurasia boundary.


A relatively small tsunami was generated which was observed and recorded at distant locations in the Pacific. Based on the earthquake aftershock distribution, the tsunami generating area was estimated to be approximately 120 by 150 kilometers.

Observations and Records of the Tsunami

JAPAN – Hokkaido Island

Nemuro – A small tsunami wave of about 40cm (16 inches ) was recorded at 9:29 p.m. at the port of Nemuro on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Kushiro – 25cm/0.8ft. An 8-inch wave hit the nearby port city of Kushiro. A series of three smaller waves followed.
Hanasaki – 30cm/1.0ft

ALASKA – Shemya – 20cm/0.65ft , Amchitka – 8cm/0.25ft

Tsunami Watches, Warnings, and Advisories

Fourteen minutes after the quake Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued a tsunami warning for the eastern Pacific coast and the Okhotsk Sea coast of Hokkaido. JMA later downgraded its warning for Hokkaido to an advisory.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning which extended from eastern Russia to Guam. The tsunami warning area also included Taiwan, the islands of Marcus, Wake and Midway, and the North Marianas and Marshall islands. A tsunami watch was declared for the Philippines, Indonesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vietnam. A tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii.

The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the Alaskan coast from Sand Point to Attu, and a tsunami watch for the parts of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state from Cape Flattery, Washington to Sand Point, Alaska.

Based on the small tsunami that was detected, all warnings, watches, and advisories were canceled for the entire Pacific and Alaska.

Recent Tsunamis Generated along the South Kuril Trench

The Earthquakes and Tsunamis of 13 and 19 October 1963

A pair of large magnitude earthquakes occurred in the same general area of the Kuril Islands on the 13 and 19 of October 1963. The 13 October earthquake had a Ms = 8.1 and an Mw = 8.5 while the 19 October earthquake had a Ms = 7.2 and an Mw = 7.8. Both had maximum reported runups of 0.4 meters in Hawaii.

The Earthquake and Tsunami of October 4, 1994

Kuril Islands – Most affected by the damaging waves of this tsunami were the islands of Shikotan, Kunashir, and Iturup, in the South Kurils. According to reports, Shikotan Island was one of the hardest-hit areas by both the earthquake and the tsunami. Following the disaster, a team of international scientists made measurements of tsunami runup heights at Shikotan, Iturup, Kunashir, and the small islands between Shikotan and Hokkaido (Yeh et al, 1995). Maximum runup on Shikotan Island was reported to be approximately 10 m (about 30 feet) high.

The epicenter of the 1994 Earthquake – Tsunami Generation Area

Since the South Kuril Island region has a long history of many large, local tsunamis, the people in this region were fairly well prepared. This probably accounts for the low death toll for the October 4, 1994 tsunami – in spite of its high runup (Pararas-Carayannis, 1995).

Japan – The areas most affected by the 1994 tsunami were Kushiro, Hachinohe, Chichijima and Hanasaki, on the island of Hokkaido. One person was killed and 140 more were injured. Runup measurements along the Hokkaido coast were carried out by a team of scientists from Japan’s Tohoku University (Takahashi and Shuto, 1994). Maximum tsunami runup in Nemuro was approximately 1.8 m.

Hawaiian Islands – The tsunami waves were not damaging in Hawaii but were readily recorded by tide gauges. The highest recorded wave at Midway Island was 0.54 meters (peak to trough) and in Kahului, Maui, 0.8 meters (peak to trough).

Past Earthquakes and Tsunamis in the Northern Japan/Kuril Island Region (since 1963)

Review of the historical record indicates that the following tsunamis were generated in recent years near Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands, Northern Japan and the Sea of Japan:

October 13, 1963 – Kuril Islands (MS=8.1, I=2.5) – Urup tsunami.
June 16, 1964 – Sea of Japan – (MS=7.5) – Niigata tsunami (26 dead).
August 11, 1969 – Kuril Islands (MS=7.8, I=2.0) – Shikotan tsunamis.
November 22, 1969 – Kamchatka (MS=7.7, I =3.0) – Ozernoy tsunami.
May 25, 1983 – Northern part of Sea of Japan (MS= 7.7) – (104 dead).
January 15, 1993 – Japan / Hokkaido (MS=7.8) – Kushiro tsunami, one dead.
July 12, 1993 – Japan Sea (MS=7.7, I=3.0) – Okushiri tsunami ( Maximum Wave Height 30.2m) (more than 200 dead).
October 4, 1994 – South Kuril Islands/Northern Japan Hokkaido(MS=8.1, I=2.6) – Shikotan tsunami (8 dead in Kuril Islands).

Tsunamigenic Potential of the Hokkaido/Kuril Island Region. Assessment of the November 15, 2006 Tsunami – Why no Larger Pacific-wide Tsunami was Generated?

It would have been expected that the large magnitude earthquake (M 8.3) of November 15, 2006, would have generated a much greater, Pacific-wide tsunami. The geometry of subduction and tectonic interactions along volcanic arcs are different than those of other tectonic collision boundaries – thus unique in tsunami generation. Pacific plate subduction along the southern Kuril Trench results in mega continental tension gashes that are parallel to the direction of convergence (Gelabert et al. 2001). Also, the tension along convergent boundaries results in steep dipping faults that may be normal, strike-slip or thrust faults.

To understand the dynamics of tsunami generation by large earthquakes in this region, we must look at the subduction processes and the mechanics of arc collision that create volcanic arcs such as the Kuril Islands and extensional back-arc basins – such as the Sea of Okhotsk.

Subduction and Arc-Arc Collision – Subduction along the Japan and Kuril Trenches has been primarily responsible for many large historical earthquakes and catastrophic tsunamis on the Pacific side of Northern Japan and the South and Central Kuril island region (see section above about the tectonic setting). Most of the tsunamis had destructive near-field effects but limited far-field impact. The only recent exception may be the 1952 Kamtchatka earthquake – which occurred much further north – and generated a tsunami with significant far field, Pacific-wide, impact.

The Pacific plate converges into northeastern Asia (the Okhotsk subplate which is part of the North American plate, separated from the Eurasian plate by the Hidaka Collision Zone (HCZ)). The rate of tectonic convergence along the Kamchatka, Kuril and Japan trenches is estimated at about 8-9 m per century – which is very high. Hokkaido, which extends northeast into the Kuril Islands is composed of multiple compressed island arcs.

In the past two centuries, this fast rate of subduction has triggered several large earthquakes with magnitudes of up to 8 or more along the southern Kuril trench, near the island of Hokkaido. However, these historical earthquakes have ruptured segments of the trench and of the forearc region that have been only in the range of 100-200 km long. Thus, these must be considered as characteristic of most plate-boundary earthquakes for this volcanic arc region. The Kuril Island Earthquakes of 13 October 1963 (Ms = 8.1; Mw = 8.5) the 19 October 1963 (Ms = 7.2; Mw = 7.8) and the October 4, 1994, did generate destructive local tsunamis but the far field effects were not significant.

The November 15, 2006 tsunami – like those of 1994 and of 1963 – occurred on the Pacific side boundary of the smaller tectonic subplate which includes the Sea of Okhotsk and possibly a portion of the northern part of the Sea of Japan (Pararas-Carayannis, 1995).

Apparently, the grinding motion of the North Pacific Plate against this subplate results in large earthquakes – such as those of 1963 and 1994 – but apparently with less vertical subduction and more rotational movement. For example, the 1994 quake resulted in only about 50 cm of land subsidence but in extensive lateral movement at Shikotan Island. A greater amount of subsidence would have been expected, given the earthquake’s large magnitude.
Also, the October 4, 1994 earthquake generated a destructive local tsunami with runup height of up to 10 meters in the South Kuril islands but the far field effects were not significant. Maximum runup along the coast of Hokkaido, Japan, was 1.8 meters (at Nemuro). The maximum runup in the Hawaiian islands was 0.8 meters (at Kahului, Maui).

The Effect of Rupture Length – The length of earthquake rupture as inferred from the distribution of aftershocks – is a major factor in the tsunami generation mechanism and on whether there will be significant far-field tsunami impact.
The crustal area in the Southern Kuril Islands and Northern Hokkaido, along the northern part of the Japan and Kuril Trenches, appears to be highly fractured. As described previously, the South Kuril Islands are part of the Kuril arc in the Okhotsk plate which has been also colliding westward against the Northeast Japan arc, along the Hidaka Collision Zone (HCZ), where new continental crust is created by the active arc-arc collision.

Crustal displacements appear to be occurring along these boundaries of highly fractured sub-plates that may not be longer than 250-300 km and probably much less. Also, it appears that these fractured smaller plates limit the extent of crustal displacements and, therefore, the energy imparted for tsunami generation.

The majority of earthquakes in the central and southern Kuril islands and the Hokkaido region – even those of large magnitude – usually involve single segment ruptures along the Kuril trench – segments that are truncated by oblique asperities. Such earthquakes with relatively short ruptures do not generate very large Pacific-wide tsunamis. Most of the destructive effects of such tsunamis are local in the Kuril Islands and northern Hokkaido region.

Crustal Delamination and Transpressional Effects – If delamination occurs below 23 km – as postulated (Ito, Kazuka @Abe, 2001) – such process would also account for the smaller tsunami as there is less vertical movement of crustal material below 23 km and more lateral movement above. As it was pointed out the 1994 earthquake resulted in only about 50 cm of land subsidence but extensive lateral movement at Shikotan Island.

The earthquake of November 15, 2006, had a focal depth of 28.5 km. Given the short rupture of the earthquake and the focal depth below the delamination boundary of 23 km, this would explain why no major tsunami was generated that had significant far field effects. Most of the earthquake’s energy went into lateral transpressional movement along this boundary of subduction – filling the void caused by Kuril arc migration by pushing the subducting (and denser) plate horizontally towards the extensional basin (Sea of Okhotsk) – as in 1994.

Can this region generate tsunamis that can have significant far field destructive effects (Pacific-wide)? Based on the stratigraphic distribution of deposits of historical tsunamis found in Japan, it has been inferred that unusually large tsunamis have occurred about every 500 years on the average in this region. Therefore, we can conclude that the rupture of two or more segments along the Japan Trench or the central and southern Kuril Trench is possible, but that the resulting earthquakes and tsunamis (that may have a far-field impact) are extremely rare but may occur every 500 years or more.


The following are selected references for further reading on the kinematics of tectonic interactions along the Japanese and Kuril Island arcs which historically have produced numerous destructive tsunamis.


Iida, K., D. C. Cox, and G. Pararas-Carayannis (1967). Preliminary catalog of tsunamis occurring in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics Report 67-10, Univ. of Hawaii, 274pp.1962

Nakamura, K., V. Renard, J. Angelier, J. Azema, J. Bourgois, C. Deplus, K. Fujioka, Y. Hamano, P. Huchon, H. Kinoshita, P. Labaume, Y. Ogawa, T. Seno, A. Takeuchi, M. Tanahashi, A. Uchiyama, and J. L. Vigneresse. Oblique and near collision subduction, Sagami and Suruga troughs -Preliminary results of French-Japanese 1984 KAIKO cruise, leg 2 Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 83 229-242 1987

Ogawa, Y., T. Seno, H. Akiyoshi, H. Tokuyama, K. Fujioka, and H. Taniguchi, 1989. Structure and development of the Sagami Trough and off-Boso triple junction. Tectonophysics 160 135-150, 1989

Kawakatsu, H., and T. Seno, 1983. Triple seismic zone and the regional variation of seismicity along the northern Honshu arc. J. Geophys. Res. 88 4215-4230 1983

Pararas-Carayannis G. 1983, The Earthquake and Tsunami of 26 May 1983 in the Sea of Japan

Pararas-Carayannis G. 1994, The Earthquake and Tsunami of The Earthquake and Tsunami of October 4, 1994 in the Kuril Islands

Pararas-Carayannis G. The November 4, 1952 Kamchatka Earthquake and Tsunami

Seno, T. and D. G. Gonzalez. 1987. Faulting caused by earthquakes beneath the outer slope of the Japan Trench. J. Phys. Earth 35 381-407 1987

Seno, T. 1999. Is northern Honshu a microplate? Tectonophysics 115 177-196 1985 __Seno, T. Syntheses of the regional stress fields of the Japanese islands The Island Arc 8 66-79 1999

Seno, T., and Y. Yamanaka. 1998. Arc stresses determined by slabs: Implications for mechanisms of back-arc spreading Geopys. Res. Lett. 25 3227-3230 1998

Seno, T., and Y. Yamanaka. 1996. Double seismic zones, compressional deep trench – outer rise events and superplumes in Subduction Top to Bottom, edited by G. E. Bebout, D. W. Scholl, S. H. Kirby, and J. P. Platt Geophys. Monogr. 96 347-355 1996

Seno, T., T. Sakurai, and S. Stein, 1996. Can the Okhotsk plate be discriminated from the North American plate? J. Geophys. Res. 101 11305-11315 1996

Seno, T., and B. Pongsawat, 1981. A triple-planed structure of seismicity and earthquake mechanisms at the subduction zone off Miyagi Prefecture, northern Honshu, Japan Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 55 25-36, 1981

Seno, T., and G. C. Kroeger. 1983 A reexamination of earthquakes previously thought to have occurred within the slab between the trench axis and double seismic zone, northern Honshu J. Phys. Earth 31 195-216 1983

Seno, T., and T. Takano, 1989. Seismotectonics at the trench-trench-trench triple junction off central Honshu Pure Appl. Geophys. 129 27-40, 1989

Seno, T., T. Sakurai, and S. Stein, 1996. Can the Okhotsk plate be discriminated from the North American plate? J. Geophys. Res. 101 11305-11315, 1996

Seno, T., and Y. Yamanaka, 1996. Double seismic zones, compressional deep trench – outer rise events and superplumes in Subduction Top to Bottom, edited by G. E. Bebout, D. W. Scholl, S. H. Kirby, and J. P. Platt Geophys. Monogr. 96 347-355, 1996

Seno, T. 1999. Earthquake Research Institute, University of Tokyo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0032, Japan The Island Arc, 8, 66-79, 1999

Tanioka, Y., and K. Satake (1996). Fault parameters of the 1896 Sanriku tsunami earthquake estimated from tsunami numerical modeling, Geophys. Res. Letters, 23-13,1549-1552.

Walker Daniel A., 2005. OCEAN-WIDE TSUNAMIS, MAGNITUDE THRESHOLDS, AND 1946 TYPE EVENTS. Science of Tsunami Hazards, Vol. 23, No. 2, page 4 (2005)

Watanabe, T., T. Koyaguchi, and T. Seno. Tectonics stress controls on ascent and emplacement of magmas J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 91 65-78, 1999


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Sergeev K. F. Tectonics of Kuril island system. Nauka, Moscow, 1976, 239 pp., in Russian.

Snegovskoi S. S. Reflection method investigations and tectonics of the southern part of Okhotsk Sea and adjacent frontier area of the Pacific. Nauka, Novosibirsk, 1974, 86 pp., in Russian.

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Structure of the Okhotsk Sea floor. Ed. V. V. Beloussov, Nauka, Moscow, 1981, 176 pp., in Russian.

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Structure and dynamics of the lithosphere and asthenosphere of the Okhotsk Sea region. Eds. A. G. Rodnikov, I. K. Tuezov, and V. V. Charahinov. National Geophysical Committee, Nauka, Moscow, 1996, 340 pp., in Russian.

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Tamaki, K., Geological structure of the Japan Sea and its tectonic implications, Bull. Geol. Surv. Japan, 39, 269-365, 1988.

Tamaki, K., and E. Honza, Global tectonics and formation of marginal basins: a role of the western Pacific, Episodes, 14, 224-230, 1991.

Tamaki, K., Opening tectonics of the Japan Sea, in Backarc Basins: Tectonics and Magmatism, edited by B. Taylor, pp. 407-420, Plenum Press, New York, 1995.

Tamaki, K., and I. I. Bersenev, Morphology of the Japan Sea, in Gelogy and Geophysics of the Japan Sea (Japan-USSR Monograph Series, Vol 1), edited by N. Isezaki, I. I. Bersenev, K. Tamaki, B. Ya. Karp, and E. P. Lelikov, pp. 35-39, Terra Scientific Publishing Company (Terrapub), 1996.

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