Japan sits next to two tectonic plate subduction zones, which are areas where one tectonic plate is flowing under another. In northern Japan, where the earthquake occurred, the Pacific plate is being forced under the North American plate. In this case, either a shallowly west-dipping fault or a steeply east-dipping fault in the subduction zone experienced severe compression:
This resulted in a ‘megathrust,’ caused by large sections of the Pacific plate becoming stuck. The grinding reorientation of the tectonic plates was the earthquake itself. Megathrust earthquakes are the most severe and only occur in subduction zones.
Japan is located on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” (more U shaped) where 90% of the Earth’s earthquakes occur, and 75% of the word’s active and dormant volcanoes. It is an area of great tectonic activity, where many plates are being subducted (pushed against and under) another plate, causing earthquakes and volcanoes.
In the case of Japan, the Pacific Plate subducts under the North American Plate. The link has a really nice interactive map.
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