On March 11, 2011, an enormous plate of the Earth's surface plunged more than 160 feet toward the deep-sea Japan Trench -- about the height of a ten-story building -- releasing so much energy that, two years later, scientists could still measure a nearly half-degree centigrade temperature increase along the Tohoku-Oki fault. What had been at "sea level" for millennia was, in an instant, plummeting toward the depths.
On the nearby islands that form the nation of Japan, the massive movement of the Earth's crust caused the fourth largest earthquake ever measured, hitting a magnitude of 9.0 and shaking buildings throughout the entire length of Japan's main island.
The ground shook below Japanese feet for roughly six minutes. Centered off the coastal city of Sendai, 230 miles from Tokyo, the quake would have devastated most nations. But Japan, a nation built on faults and volcanic mountains, has the toughest seismic building codes in the world, and few buildings toppled.
Forty minutes after the earthquake, towers of water slammed Japan's Pacific coastline, with the largest wave reaching the Sendai region at a height of 133 feet. Combined, the earthquake and tsunami claimed about 19,000 lives, destroyed or severely damaged nearly 1 million buildings, left 4.4 million households without electricity, and created the nation's worst catastrophe since World War II.