Japan issued a tsunami alert today and told Pacific coast residents to flee to higher ground after a powerful earthquake hit off sparsely populated islands between northern Japan and the Russian Far East.
A tsunami about 6 feet tall or higher had been expected to hit the Pacific coast of Japan’s northern-most island of Hokkaido, the agency said.
The first wave recorded at Nemuro port on Hokkaido hit at 9:29 pm (12.29pm Irish time), but was estimated at only 16 inches.
A second wave of half that height was recorded about 15 minutes later. At least three more small waves followed.
Live footage from northern Japan after the first waves hit showed calm seas and lighted windows. Residents said they barely felt the quake and there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
An official from the town of Shibetsu on Hokkaido, Kiyoshi Takimoto, told public broadcaster NHK that about 4,000 of the town’s 6,100 residents lived along the coast and had been told to flee to higher ground. Takimoto said he didn’t notice the quake.
The government set up an emergency task force at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office, officials said.
Residents of the Southern Kurils were also evacuated because of the tsunami threat, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported, citing emergency officials in Russia’s Far East. ITAR-Tass reported that Russia’s Pacific Fleet ships took refuge at their bases but were ready to help with rescue operations if necessary.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency said the quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 8.1, struck about 245 miles east of the island known in Japan as Etorofu, which is about 110 miles north-east of Hokkaido.
The US Geological Survey estimated the magnitude at 7.8.
In the Hokkaido city of Kushiro, fire department and city officials were urging residents to move to safety, according to city official Masatoshi Sato.
Railway officials ordered local trains on Hokkaido to stop at nearby stations as a precautionary step, NHK said.
A tsunami advisory was issued for Hawaii, where the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said there was no threat of a destructive wave.
Cindy Preller, an official with the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, said no tsunami was expected to hit the West Coast of North or South America.
Etorofu is one of four islands claimed by both Japan and Russia. It is known in Russia as Iturup.
The chain of islands is known in Russia as the Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories.
The islands were occupied by the Soviet Union in the closing days of the Second World War.
They are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves.
They also have gold and silver deposits.
But the population has plummeted to just 9,900, according to official statistics.
Temblors of magnitude 7 or higher are generally classified as major earthquakes, capable of widespread, heavy damage.
A magnitude 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004 caused a tsunami that killed at least 213,000 people in 11 countries. Those waves reached as high as 33 feet.
Tsunami waves, which are generated by earthquakes, are often barely noticeable in the ocean but can rise to great heights once they arrive at shore.
Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries because it sits atop four tectonic plates.