Many studies have modeled the Tohoku tsunami of March 11, 2011 as being due entirely to slip on an earthquake fault, but the following discrepancies suggest that further research is warranted. (1) Published models of tsunami propagation and coastal impact underpredict the observed runup heights of up to 40 m measured along the coast of the Sanriku district in the northeast part of Honshu Island. (2) Published models cannot reproduce the timing and high-frequency content of tsunami waves recorded at three nearshore buoys off Sanriku, nor the timing and dispersion properties of the waveforms at offshore DART buoy #21418. (3) The rupture centroids obtained by tsunami inversions are biased about 60 km NNE of that obtained by the Global CMT Project.
Based on an analysis of seismic and geodetic data, together with recorded tsunami waveforms, we propose that, while the primary source of the tsunami was the vertical displacement of the seafloor due to the earthquake, an additional tsunami source is also required. We infer the location of the proposed additional source based on an analysis of the travel times of higher-frequency tsunami waves observed at nearshore buoys. We further propose that the most likely additional tsunami source was a submarine mass failure (SMF—i.e., a submarine landslide). A comparison of pre- and post-tsunami bathymetric surveys reveals tens of meters of vertical seafloor movement at the proposed SMF location, and a slope stability analysis confirms that the horizontal acceleration from the earthquake was sufficient to trigger an SMF. Forward modeling of the tsunami generated by a combination of the earthquake and the SMF reproduces the recorded on-, near- and offshore tsunami observations well, particularly the high-frequency component of the tsunami waves off Sanriku, which were not well simulated by previous models. The conclusion that a significant part of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami was generated by an SMF source has important implications for estimates of tsunami hazard in the Tohoku region as well as in other tectonically similar regions.