Scientists in Japan have discovered an underwater fault off the coast that could unleash a giant “tsunami” tidal wave that would engulf the mainland with almost no warning. The newly-detected fault, which is only a few miles from the land, may have been responsible for the 8.1 magnitude earthquake which struck Japan in 1944.

“Any tsunami would hit the mainland with only a few minutes’ warning,” says Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Center in the U.K. “Most people in Japan live along the coast and evacuating them in only a few minutes would be impossible.”

Underwater faults are hard to find and much of the ocean floor is still unmapped. Faults may never protrude above the ocean floor or they may be covered in sediment, making them difficult to locate. Large earthquakes occur every 100 to 200 years along faults of the same kind as the one that?s just been discovered.

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