Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Unusually large earthquakes inferred from tsunami deposits along the Kuril trench


The Pacific plate converges with northeastern Eurasia at a rate of 8–9 m per century along the Kamchatka, Kuril and Japan trenches1. Along the southern Kuril trench, which faces the Japanese island of Hokkaido, this fast subduction has recurrently generated earthquakes with magnitudes of up to 8 over the past two centuries2,3,4,5,6. These historical events, on rupture segments 100–200 km long, have been considered characteristic of Hokkaido's plate-boundary earthquakes7,8. But here we use deposits of prehistoric tsunamis to infer the infrequent occurrence of larger earthquakes generated from longer ruptures. Many of these tsunami deposits form sheets of sand that extend kilometres inland from the deposits of historical tsunamis. Stratigraphic series of extensive sand sheets, intercalated with dated volcanic-ash layers, show that such unusually large tsunamis occurred about every 500 years on average over the past 2,000–7,000 years, most recently 350 years ago. Numerical simulations of these tsunamis are best explained by earthquakes that individually rupture multiple segments along the southern Kuril trench. We infer that such multi-segment earthquakes persistently recur among a larger number of single-segment events.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Maps of study area.
Figure 2: Summary of tsunami deposits in eastern Hokkaido and comparison with modelled inundation.
Figure 3: Evidence for outsize tsunamis at Kiritappu.
Figure 4: Evidence for outsize tsunamis at Harutori-ko.
Figure 5


  1. DeMets, C. Oblique convergence and deformation along the Kuril and Japan Trenches. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 17615–17625 (1992)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Aida, I. Reliability of a tsunami source model derived from fault parameters. J. Phys. Earth 26, 57–73 (1978)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Shimazaki, K. Nemuro-oki earthquake of June 17, 1973: A lithospheric rebound at the upper half of the interface. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 9, 314–327 (1974)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Hirata, K., Geist, E. L., Satake, K., Tanioka, Y. & Yamaki, S. Slip distribution of the 1952 Tokachi-Oki earthquake (M 8.1) along the Kuril trench deduced from tsunami waveform inversion. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 101029/2002JB001976 (2003)

  5. Hatori, T Source area of the tsunami off the Nemuro Peninsula in 1973 and its comparison with the tsunami in 1894 [in Japanese with English abstract]. Spec. Bull. Earthq. Res. Inst. Univ. Tokyo 13, 67–76 (1974)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Hatori, T. Source area of the East Hokkaido Tsunami generated in April, 1843 [in Japanese with English abstract]. Bull. Earthq. Res. Inst. Univ. Tokyo 59, 423–431 (1984)

    Google Scholar 

  7. Fukao, Y. & Furumoto, M. Stress drops, wave spectra and recurrence intervals of great earthquakes — implications of the Etorofu earthquake of 1958 November 6. Geophys. J. R. Astron. Soc. 57, 23–40 (1979)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Nishenko, S. P. Circum-Pacific seismic potential: 1989–1999. Pure Appl. Geophys. 135, 169–259 (1991)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Central Meteorological Observatory The Tokachi earthquake of March 4, 1952 [in Japanese with English abstract]. Q. J. Seismol. 17, 1–135 (1953)

    Google Scholar 

  10. Abe, K. Quantification of historical tsunamis by the Mt scale [in Japanese with English abstract]. Zisin 52, 369–377 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Watanabe, H. Comprehensive List of Tsunamis to Hit the Japanese Islands [in Japanese] (Univ. Tokyo Press, Tokyo, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Sawai, Y., Nasu, H. & Yasuda, Y. Fluctuations in relative sea-level during the past 3000 yr in the Onnetoh estuary, Hokkaido, northern Japan. J. Quat. Sci. 17, 607–622 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Clague, J. J., Bobrowsky, P. T. & Hutchinson, I. A review of geological records of large tsunamis at Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and implications for hazard. Quat. Sci. Rev. 19, 849–863 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Pinegina, T. K., Bourgeois, J., Bazanova, L. I., Melekestsev, I. V. & Braitseva, O. A. A millennial-scale record of Holocene tsunamis on the Lronotskiy Bay coast, Kamchatka, Russia. Quat. Res. 59, 36–47 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hirakawa, K., Nakamura, Y. & Echigo, T. Tokachi chiho Taiheiyo engan chiiki no kyodai tsunami [Giant tsunami along the Pacific coast of the Tokachi region]. Gekkan Chikyu (supplement 31), 92–98 (2000)

  16. Sawai, Y. Evidence for 17th-century tsunamis generated on the Kuril-Kamchatka subduction zone, Lake Tokotan, Hokkaido, Japan. J. Asian Earth Sci. 20, 903–911 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Furukawa, R., Yoshimoto, M., Yamagata, K., Wada, K. & Ui, T. Did Hokkaido Komagatake volcano erupt in 1694? — reappraisal of the eruptive ages of 17–18th centuries in Hokkaido [in Japanese with English abstract]. Kazan 42, 269–276 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Nishimura, Y., Miyaji, N., Yoshida, M., Murata, T. & Nakagawa, M. The 1843 tsunami deposits found in the peat deposit at Kiritappu marsh, eastern Hokkaido, Japan [in Japanese with English abstract]. Daiyonki Kenkyu 39, 451–460 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Chikita, K., Fukuyami, R., Sakamoto, H. & Nakamichi, K. Dynamic behaviors of “dead water” in a coastal lagoon, Lake Harutori, Kushiro, Hokkaido: Field measurements for the ice-covered period [in Japanese with English abstract]. Geophys. Bull. Hokkaido Univ. 60 13–28 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Beck, S. L. & Ruff, L. J. Rupture process of the great 1963 Kuril Islands earthquake sequence: asperity interaction and multiple event rupture. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 14123–14138 (1987)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Kanamori, H. Mechanism of tsunami earthquakes. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 6, 246–259 (1972)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Okal, E. A. & Newman, A. V. Tsunami earthquakes: The quest for a regional signal. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 124, 45–70 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Tanioka, Y. & Satake, K. Fault parameters of the 1896 Sanriku tsunami earthquake estimated from tsunami numerical modeling. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 1549–1552 (1996)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Thatcher, W. Earthquake recurrence and risk assessment in circum-Pacific seismic gaps. Nature 341, 432–434 (1989)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Schwartz, S. Y. Noncharacteristic behavior and complex recurrence of large subduction zone earthquakes. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 23111–23125 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Ando, M. Source mechanisms and tectonic significance of historical earthquakes along the Nankai trough. Japan. Tectonophysics 27, 119–140 (1975)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Mansinha, L. & Smyle, D. E. The displacement fields of inclined faults. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 61, 1433–1440 (1971)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Imamura, F. in Long-wave Runup Models (eds Yeh, H., Liu, P. & Synolakis, C.) 25–42 (World Scientific, Singapore, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Satake, K. Linear and nonlinear computations of the 1992 Nicaragua earthquake tsunami. Pure Appl. Geophys. 144, 455–470 (1995)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Iwasaki, T. & Mano, A. Two-dimensional numerical simulation of tsunami run-ups in the Eulerian description [in Japanese]. Proc. 26th Conf. Coastal Eng. JSCE, 70–72 (Japan Soc. Civil Engineers, Tokyo, 1979)

Download references


We thank K. Hirakawa, Y. Nishimura, Y. Sawai, A. Moore, H. Kelsey and E. Hemphill-Haley for guidance in the field, and F. Akiba for diatom analysis. We also thank R. Stein, J. Bourgeois, K. Shimazaki, S. Toda and H. Kelsey for comments on the manuscript. The work formed part of the US-Japan Common Agenda for earthquake and tsunami studies.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kenji Satake.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information


Supplementary Figure 1: a Index map to extensive sand sheets and other evidence for unusually large tsunamis in eastern Hokkaido. b Tsunami heights at shore (PDF 88 kb)


Supplementary Table 1: Sites where extensive tsunami deposits have been identified along the eastern Hokkaido coast (DOC 104 kb)


Supplementary Table 2: Major-element analyses of tephra samples correlated with widespread layers listed at top (DOC 63 kb)


Supplementary Table 3: Environmental preferences assumed for diatom taxa identified from sand and peat in core at Kiritappu site (Fig. 3b, d). *, dominant species in core samples (DOC 32 kb)

Supplementary Table 4: Limiting-maximum ages of inferred tsunami deposits beneath Haritori-ko (DOC 29 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nanayama, F., Satake, K., Furukawa, R. et al. Unusually large earthquakes inferred from tsunami deposits along the Kuril trench. Nature 424, 660–663 (2003).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing