TOKYO (AP) – Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued tsunami warnings today following a powerful 8.3 magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Ocean and said tidal levels had fallen 4 inches in Nemuro in northeastern Japan, a sign of a possible tsunami.

The tsunami warnings sent thousands of residents along the archipelago’s eastern coast fleeing to higher ground, officials said.

The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu also issued a tsunami watch Friday for Hawaii and Alaska’s western Aleutian islands.

The center said the waves could reach the Hawaii’s shores just after midnight Hawaii Standard Time (5 a.m. EST). They were expected to hit Alaska’s Dutch Harbor about an hour earlier.

The tsunami center issued a warning for the western Aleutians Islands from the villages of Nikolski to Adak and warned that people in low-lying coastal areas should remain alert to instructions from local emergency officials.

Adak is a community of 167 about 1,300 miles southwest of Anchorage. Nikolski is a village of 31 about 900 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The warning center issued a tsunami watch for the rest of the Aleutians and coastal areas along south-central Alaska to Seward.

The quake struck around 1:24 p.m. about 310 miles east of Etorofu, the largest of a disputed four-island chain known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril islands in Russia, the agency said.

The quake struck at a depth of 19 miles below the seabed, the agency said.

The U.S. Geological Survey registered the earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.9, spokeswoman Clarice Ransom said.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from the quake, Hokkaido prefectural (state) police spokesman Shinji Yamakoshi said.

In addition to the highest alert for towns facing the east coast of Hokkaido, the agency also issued weaker warnings for dozens of other cities as far as the western region of Japan’s Honshu main island facing the Pacific coast.

Public broadcaster NHK said no visible changes in the sea level had been observed past the predicted tsunami arrival time. The agency also predicted a tsunami as high as 1.65 feet could hit western Japan around 4 p.m. (2 a.m. EST).

Temblors of magnitude 7 are generally classified as major earthquakes, capable of widespread, heavy damage.

Tsunami waves – generated by earthquakes – are often barely noticeable in the ocean but can rise to great heights once they arrive at shore.

On Dec. 26, 2004, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake off Indonesia’s Sumatra island spawned giant waves that fanned out across the Indian Ocean at jetliner speeds, leaving at least 230,000 dead and millions of homeless in its wake.

AP-ES-01-13-07 0053EST

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