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The biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began hit the country’s northeast coast today, triggering a 32-foot tsunami.

The 8.9-magnitude quake’s epicenter was 231 miles northeast of Tokyo, reported the United States Geological Survey. But the destruction caused by the natural disaster is expected to spread far beyond Japan.

Countries across the Pacific from Indonesia to Peru are bracing for the arrival of a series of tsunamis triggered by the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, with low-lying Pacific islands at greatest risk.

Dozens of countries are on alert – including the entire west coast of the United States and Canada – as experts warn that the waves could wash right over islands in their path.

Tsunami warnings are in place for countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador and Columbia.

Authorities are evacuating tens of thousands of people from vulnerable areas.

The largest waves are headed south-west from Japan at about 500mph and could cross the Pacific basin in 24 hours. There have been waves from four to seven meters high crashing into the Japanese coast.

Several Pacific islands have already been hit by waves of around a meter but larger waves, up to 2m, could reach South America, said Kanoa Koyanagi, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. The waves are expected to reach Ecuador at 23.31pm GMT, and Colombia and Peru in the early hours of Saturday morning.

“From what we’re seeing in some of the Pacific islands most of the wave heights are up to around a metre, but some of those islands aren’t in the main beam of the tsunami wave,” Koyanagi said.

“There are certain directions the tsunami prefers to go in and those are where you’re going to get the biggest waves. Certain parts of the South American coast probably will see almost nothing but other parts might get a meter or two of wave height.” The timing between successive waves is around 20 minutes.

Hawaii is preparing for a tsunami. The island was shaken by a 4.5-magnitude tremor that the US Geological Survey said was probably unrelated to the quake off Japan”We’re preparing for the worst and we’re praying for the best,” said John Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management.

“Tsunami waves, because of their long length, they wrap around our islands very efficiently.”

In the Philippines officials ordered an evacuation of coastal communities along the east coast. Disaster management officials in Albay province, south-east of Manila, told residents to gather at designated sites at least five meters above sea level.

Waves were expected to hit Guam, 2,400km south of Japan, at 11am GMT. Officials cleared beaches and hotels have moved guests to higher floors.

Taiwan’s coastguard began evacuating its east coast, although it is not heavily populated. The waves there are expected to be 50cm to 1m high.

Russian officials have moved 11,000 residents from coastal areas of remote eastern Sakhalin island and nearby territories.

“A tsunami is a series of waves and the first wave may not be the largest,” said a bulletin from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

“The threat can continue for many hours as multiple waves arrive.”

Here’s a video of the tsunami in Japan: