The Pacific Rim was on high alert last night after a tsunami warning was issued for virtually the entire region, following the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck in shallow waters off the coast of Japan.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from coastal areas in Hawaii, Russia’s far eastern Sakhalin Island and parts of The Philippines in anticipation of the coming walls of water.
“An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours,” the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said.
The centre issued a warning for countries and territories ranging from those relatively close to Japan, including Russia, Guam, and The Philippines, to those further away such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Zealand and Samoa.
It extended to the west coast of the US and Hawaii, Pacific coast countries in South America, including Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and even as far south as Antarctica.
The warning also included Australia. But the Bureau of Meteorology said the country’s mainland, islands and territories were safe.
Forecaster Chris Ryan from the National Meteorological and Oceanographic Centre said there was a chance that could change if the quake’s magnitude was found to be higher. “But we’re a fair while past the event now – it seems to have settled to that level,” he said.
Mr Ryan said Australia was relatively sheltered by PNG and the Solomons.
About 11,000 people were evacuated from Sakhalin Island, where regional emergency officials predicted tsunami waves could hit several villages.
Emergency authorities in Hawaii were scrambling to organise buses and other transport to take people to evacuation centres.
In The Philippines, officials ordered an evacuation of coastal communities along the country’s eastern seaboard. Disaster management officials in Albay province, southeast of Manila, said they had ordered residents to move to designated evacuation sites at least 5m above sea level.
Philippine Volcanology and Seismology Institute director Renato Solidum said the country expected to be hit by 1m-high waves.
PNG and Solomon Island authorities said they were not expecting any of the devastation experienced in Japan.
“As a precaution, we’ve activated our warning system to numerous remote costal villagers and outer islands,” said Lote Yates, from the Solomons Disaster Centre.
Indonesian authorities warned people in eastern areas – including Papua, Maluku and North Sulawesi – to be on guard for tsunamis.
More than 220,000 people were killed when a 9.1-magnitude quake hit off Indonesia on Boxing Day in 2004, unleashing a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean as far away as Africa.
Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography and tsunami specialist at the University of Western Australia, said the 2004 earthquake had struck 30km under the ocean floor, but yesterday’s in Japan had occurred in much shallower waters, just 25km below the sea bed.
“It was what we call a shallow earthquake, so the effects are hard,” Professor Pattiaratchi said.
“Usually we say for a tsunami to be generated it has to be less than 30km deep. What you’re doing is basically setting up an explosion.
“If the explosion is very deep in the ocean you don’t move the sea surface, so you don’t get a tsunami.
“So, when it’s really shallow you have a much bigger effect on the seabed, which creates the tsunami.”
He said the earthquake also sent the tsunami towards a large bay near the city of Sendai, 300km northeast of Tokyo, further intensifying its effects.
“The bay would basically concentrate the energy into certain areas, wrap around, and it can reflect back and forth from the bay.”
He thought the tsunami would greatly dissipate before it reached most other countries.
The quake was felt as far away as Beijing, but Chinese authorities said the country faced no threat of a “disastrous” tsunami. Workers in some office towers in the capital, more than 2500km from the epicentre, reported via chat sites they had clearly felt the tremor.
Beijing’s seismological bureau said it had received reports from residents who also claimed to have felt shaking from the quake.
No injuries or damage were immediately reported in China.
Last night Taiwan said the tsunami waves had arrived but had caused no damage.