More than 10 years after the 9.1-magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011 – triggering a devastating tsunami that destroyed much human infrastructure and left 20,000 dead – at least one coastal city in Japan is still recovering. Rikuzentakata, a harbor city that borders Hirota Bay, is located in Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan. In parts of Iwate Prefecture, the tsunami reached a run-up height – or maximum inundation point above sea level – of 133 feet (40.5 meters).
Approximately 8% of the population of Rikuzentakata was lost to the colossal waves, and 80% of the residential areas were destroyed.
The tsunami swept away a pine forest that was meant to act as tidewater control between the bay and the city. Some 70,000 trees were lost to the sea. Farmland was swamped with seawater for weeks.
Rikuzentakata is located northward of the now-disabled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which also underwent a major disaster due to the events of March 11, 2011.
A 41-foot-high (12.5-meter) seawall now replaces the one wiped away by the tsunami. In the 2021 image at top, you can see the extensive forest along the seawall has not yet recovered. In the midst of the devastated area that was flooded in the wake of the tsunami, a museum now stands as a testament to the power of nature and the indefatigable spirit of the Japanese people. The mission statement of the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum reads:
The Japanese Archipelago is one of the places on Earth most threatened by natural disaster, and we who spent many years living on this land have built up a strong will to oppose this danger. Despite this, in the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we suffered an immense loss of life. In order to avoid repeating this sorrow, it is of utmost importance that we possess the knowledge, wisdom, and motivation to protect ourselves against various natural disasters, and thus become able to overcome them. The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum will share the wisdom of our predecessors, the reality of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and the lessons we’ve learned with the world to become a society strong against natural disaster. In addition, as part of our efforts in overcoming the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we’d like to show our gratitude for the support we have received.
Bottom line: Ten years after the 9.1-magnitude earthquake and deadly tsunami that inundated the coastline of northeastern Japan, satellite images show how far the city of Rikuzentakata has come.
Kelly Kizer Whitt has been a science writer specializing in astronomy for more than two decades. She began her career at Astronomy Magazine, and she has made regular contributions to AstronomyToday and the Sierra Club, among other outlets. Her children’s picture book, Solar System Forecast, was published in 2012. She has also written a young adult dystopian novel titled A Different Sky. When she is not reading or writing about astronomy and staring up at the stars, she enjoys traveling to the national parks, creating crossword puzzles, running, tennis, and paddleboarding. Kelly lives with her family in Wisconsin.