Seismologists in Colorado monitor Japan earthquake and aftershocks

A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake, and more than a dozen smaller ones, jolted Japan just hours into the new year.

Meanwhile, halfway across the globe in Golden, Colorado, scientists jumped into action to determine the precise location and magnitude of the earthquake

“This earthquake happened on the west coast of Japan,” said seismologist Paul Earle. 

The U.S. Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center monitors earthquakes around the world and reports their potential impacts. 

RELATED: Powerful earthquakes off Japan’s west coast prompt tsunami warnings

“We have an automatic system that first locates the earthquake and gives a rough location, and then our 24-by-seven staff goes in and manually checks that location and modifies the data to make sure it’s good,” said Earle.



Located in Colorado because of its lower earthquake risk, thousands of seismic stations around the world send their data to the center. 

Now seismologists are working to understand how the fault on Japan’s coast ruptured. 

“This is the main shock, and you can start to see the aftershocks come in,” said seismologist Jessica Turner, while gesturing to waveforms on a screen.

U.S. Geological Survey Seismologist Jessica Turner


“The plates moved kind of vertically in relation to each other. As opposed to the San Andreas which most people may be familiar with where the plates moved side to side,” said Earle. 

They also project what damage the quake will likely cause. 

“It was a particularly dangerous earthquake because it happened near the coast. So it not only created violent shaking on land under a populated area, but it also created a tsunami,” said Earle. 

U.S. Geological Survey Seismologist Paul Earle  


Early reports suggest at least four people have died in this earthquake, but U.S. Geological Survey projections estimate there could be up to 100 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. 

Staff in Colorado will continue to monitor the aftershocks as Japan deals with the aftermath of that deadly earthquake.

“We’ve recorded about 30 aftershocks for this earthquake in the range of magnitude 4.5 to 6.2,” said Earle. “Aftershocks will continue for weeks potentially months after an earthquake of this size and there’s always a small chance of having an earthquake as large or larger than the earthquake that did occur.”

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