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Tsunami FAQs From the International Tsunami Information Center

What is a tsunami?

The phenomenon we call tsunami is a series of large waves of extremely long wavelength and period usually generated by a violent, impulsive undersea disturbance or activity near the coast or in the ocean. When a sudden displacement of a large volume of water occurs, or if the sea floor is suddenly raised or dropped by an earthquake, big tsunami waves can be formed by forces of gravity. The waves travel out of the area of origin and can be extremely dangerous and damaging when they reach the shore. The word tsunami (pronounced tsoo-nah'-mee) is composed of the Japanese words “tsu” (which means harbor) and “nami” (which means “wave”). Often the term, “seismic or tidal sea wave” is used to describe the same phenomenon, however the terms are misleading, because tsunami waves can be generated by other, non seismic disturbances such as volcanic eruptions or underwater landslides, and have physical characteristics different of tidal waves. The tsunami waves are completely unrelated to the astronomical tides—which are caused by the extraterrestrial, gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and the planets. Thus, the Japanese word “tsunami”, meaning “harbor wave” is the correct, official, and all-inclusive term. It has been internationally adopted because it covers all forms of impulsive wave generation.

How do earthquakes generate tsunamis?

By far, the most destructive tsunamis are generated from large, shallow earthquakes with an epicenter or fault line near or on the ocean floor. These usually occur in regions of the earth characterized by tectonic subduction along tectonic plate boundaries. The high seismicity of such regions is caused by the collision of tectonic plates. When these plates move past each other, they cause large earthquakes, which tilt, offset, or displace large areas of the ocean floor from a few kilometers to as much as a 1,000 km or more. The sudden vertical displacements over such large areas disturb the ocean's surface, displace water, and generate destructive tsunami waves. The waves can travel great distances from the source region, spreading destruction along their path. For example, the Great 1960 Chilean tsunami was generated by a magnitude 9.5 earthquake that had a rupture zone of over 1,000 km. Its waves were destructive not only in Chile, but also as far away as Hawaii, Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific. It should be noted that not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. Usually, it takes an earthquake with a Richter magnitude exceeding 7.5 to produce a destructive tsunami.

How do volcanic eruptions generate tsunamis?

Although relatively infrequent, violent volcanic eruptions represent also impulsive disturbances, which can displace a great volume of water and generate extremely destructive tsunami waves in the immediate source area. According to this mechanism, waves may be generated by the sudden displacement of water caused by a volcanic explosion, by a volcano's slope failure, or more likely by a phreatomagmatic explosion and collapse/engulfment of the volcanic magmatic chambers. One of the largest and most destructive tsunamis ever recorded was generated in August 26, 1883, after the explosion and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa (Krakatau), in Indonesia. This explosion generated waves that reached 135 feet, destroyed coastal towns and villages along the Sunda Strait in both the islands of Java and Sumatra, killing 36,417 people. It is also believed that the destruction of the Minoan civilization in Greece was caused in 1490 B.C. by the explosion/collapse of the volcano of Santorin in the Aegean Sea.

How do submarine landslides, rock falls and underwater slumps generate tsunamis?

Less frequently, tsunami waves can be generated from displacements of water resulting from rock falls, icefalls and sudden submarine landslides or slumps. Such events may be caused impulsively from the instability and sudden failure of submarine slopes, which are sometimes triggered by the ground motions of a strong earthquake. For example in the 1980s, earth moving and construction work of an airport runway along the coast of Southern France, triggered an underwater landslide, which generated destructive tsunami waves in the harbor of Thebes. Major earthquakes are suspected to cause many underwater landslides, which may contribute significantly to tsunami generation. For example, many scientists believe that the 1998 tsunami, which killed thousands of people and destroyed coastal villages along the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, was generated by a large underwater slump of sediments, triggered by an earthquake. In general, the energy of tsunami waves generated from landslides or rock falls is rapidly dissipated as they travel away from the source and across the ocean, or within an enclosed or semi-enclosed body of water—such as a lake or a fjord.

Can asteroids, meteorites or man-made explosions cause tsunamis?

Fortunately, for mankind, it is indeed very rare for a meteorite or an asteroid to reach the earth. No asteroid has fallen on the earth within recorded history. Most meteorites burn as they reach the earth's atmosphere. However, large meteorites have hit the earth's surface in the distant past. This is indicated by large craters, which have been found in different parts of the earth. Also, it is possible that an asteroid may have fallen on the earth in prehistoric times—the last one some 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Since evidence of the fall of meteorites and asteroids on earth exists, we must conclude that they have fallen also in the oceans and seas of the earth, particularly since four fifths of our planet is covered by water. The fall of meteorites or asteroids in the earth's oceans has the potential of generating tsunamis of cataclysmic proportions. Scientists studying this possibility have concluded that the impact of moderately large asteroid, 5–6 km in diameter, in the middle of the large ocean basin such as the Atlantic Ocean, would produce a tsunami that would travel all the way to the Appalachian Mountains in the upper two-thirds of the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, coastal cities would be washed out by such a tsunami. An asteroid 5–6 kilometers in diameter impacting between the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast of North America, would produce a tsunami which would wash out the coastal cities on the West coasts of Canada, U.S. and Mexico and would cover most of the inhabited coastal areas of the Hawaiian islands. Conceivably tsunami waves can also be generated from very large nuclear explosions. However, no tsunami of any significance has ever resulted from the testing of nuclear weapons in the past. Furthermore, such testing is presently prohibited by international treaty.

Where and how frequently are tsunamis generated?

Tsunamis are disasters that can be generated in all of the world's oceans, inland seas, and in any large body of water. Each region of the world appears to have its own cycle of frequency and pattern in generating tsunamis that range in size from small to the large and highly destructive events. Most tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean and its marginal seas. The reason is that the Pacific covers more than one-third of the earth's surface and is surrounded by a series of mountain chains, deep-ocean trenches and island arcs called the “ring of fire”—where most earthquakes occur (off the coasts of Kamchatka, Japan, the Kuril Islands, Alaska and South America). Many tsunamis have also been generated in the seas which border the Pacific Ocean. Tsunamis are generated by shallow earthquakes all around the Pacific, but those from earthquakes in the tropical Pacific tend to be modest in size. While such tsunamis in these areas may be devastating locally, their energy decays rapidly with distance. Usually, they are not destructive a few hundred kilometers away from their sources. That is not the case with tsunamis generated by great earthquakes in the North Pacific or along the Pacific coast of South America. On the average of about half-a-dozen times per century, a tsunami from one of these regions sweeps across the entire Pacific, is reflected from distant shores, and sets the entire ocean in motion for days. For example, the 1960 Chilean tsunami caused death and destruction throughout the Pacific. Hawaii, Samoa, and Easter Island all recorded runups exceeding 4 m; 61 people were killed in Hawaii. In Japan 200 people died. A similar tsunami in 1868 from northern Chile caused extensive damage in the Austral Islands, Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand. Although not as frequent, destructive tsunamis have been also been generated in the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, and even within smaller bodies of water, like the Sea of Marmara, in Turkey. The deadliest tsunami on record occurred on Dec. 26, 2004, in the Indian Ocean, causing damage in eleven countries and killing more than a quarter million. In the last decade alone, destructive tsunamis have occurred in Nicaragua (1992), Indonesia (1992, 1994, 1996), Japan (1993), Philippines (1994), Mexico (1995), Peru (1996, 2001), Papua-New Guinea (1998), Turkey (1999), and Vanuatu (1999).

How does tsunami energy travel across the ocean and how far can tsunamis waves reach?

Once a tsunami has been generated, its energy is distributed throughout the water column, regardless of the ocean's depth. A tsunami is made up of a series of very long waves. The waves will travel outward on the surface of the ocean in all directions away from the source area, much like the ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond. The wavelength of the tsunami waves and their period will depend on the generating mechanism and the dimensions of the source event. If the tsunami is generated from a large earthquake over a large area, its initial wavelength and period will be greater. If the tsunami is caused by a local landslide, both its initial wavelength and period will be shorter. The period of the tsunami waves may range from 5 to 90 minutes. The wave crests of a tsunami can be a thousand km long, and from a few to a hundred kilometers or more apart as they travel across the ocean. On the open ocean, the wavelength of a tsunami may be as much as two hundred kilometers, many times greater than the ocean depth, which is on the order of a few kilometers. In the deep ocean, the height of the tsunami from trough to crest may be only a few centimeters to a meter or more—again depending on the generating source. Tsunami waves in the deep ocean can travel at high speeds for long periods of time for distances of thousands of kilometers and lose very little energy in the process. The deeper the water, the greater the speed of tsunami waves will be. For example, at the deepest ocean depths the tsunami wave speed will be as much as 800 km/h, about the same as that of a jet aircraft. Since the average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4000 m (14,000 feet) , tsunami wave speed will average about 200 m/s or over 700 km/h (500 mph). At such high speeds, a tsunami generated in Aleutian Islands may reach Hawaii in less than four and a half hours. In 1960, great tsunami waves generated in Chile reached Japan, more than 16,800 km away in less than 24 hours, killing hundreds of people.

Why aren't tsunamis seen at sea or from the air?

In the deep ocean, tsunami wave amplitude is usually less than 1 m (3.3 feet). The crests of tsunami waves may be more than a hundred kilometers or more away from each other. Therefore, passengers on boats at sea, far away from shore where the water is deep, will not feel nor see the tsunami waves as they pass by underneath at high speeds. The tsunami may be perceived as nothing more than a gentle rise and fall of the sea surface. The Great Sanriku tsunami, which struck Honshu, Japan, on June 15, 1896, was completely undetected by fishermen twenty miles out to sea. The deep-water height of this tsunami was only about 40 centimeters when it passed them and yet, when it arrived on the shore, it had transformed into huge waves that killed 28,000 people, destroyed the port of Sanriku and villages along 275 km of coastline. For the same reason of low amplitude and very long periods in the deep ocean, tsunami waves cannot be seen nor detected from the air. From the sky, tsunami waves cannot be distinguished from ordinary ocean waves.

What types of destruction are caused by tsunamis?

There are three: inundation, wave impact on structures, and erosion. Strong, tsunami-induced currents lead to the erosion of foundations and the collapse of bridges and seawalls. Flotation and drag forces move houses and overturn railroad cars. Considerable damage is caused by the resultant floating debris, including boats and cars that become dangerous projectiles that may crash into buildings, break power lines, and may start fires. Fires from damaged ships in ports or from ruptured coastal oil storage tanks and refinery facilities, can cause damage greater than that inflicted directly by the tsunami. Of increasing concern is the potential effect of tsunami draw down, when receding waters uncover cooling water intakes of nuclear power plants.

What determines how destructive a tsunami will be near the origin and at a distant shore?

Tsunamis arrive at a coastline as a series of successive crests (high water levels) and troughs (low water levels)—usually occurring 10 to 45 minutes apart. As they enter the shallow waters of coastlines, bays, or harbors, their speed decreases to about 50–60 km/h. For example, in 15 m of water the speed of a tsunami will be only 45 km/h. However 100 or more kilometers away, another tsunami wave travels in deep water towards the same shore at a much greater speed, and still behind it there is another wave, traveling at even greater speed. As the tsunami waves become compressed near the coast, the wavelength is shortened and the wave energy is directed upward—thus increasing their heights considerably. Just as with ordinary surf, the energy of the tsunami waves must be contained in a smaller volume of water, so the waves grow in height. Even though the wavelength shortens near the coast, a tsunami will typically have a wavelength in excess of ten kilometers when it comes ashore. Depending on the water depth and the coastal configuration, the waves may undergo extensive refraction—another process that may converge their energy to particular areas on the shore and thus increase the heights even more. Even if a tsunami wave may have been 1 meter of less in the deep ocean, it may grow into a huge 30–35 meter wave when it sweeps over the shore. Thus, tsunami waves may smash into the shore like a wall of water or move in as a fast moving flood or tide—carrying everything on their path. Either way, the waves become a significant threat to life and property. If the tsunami waves arrive at high tide, or if there are concurrent storm waves in the area, the effects will be cumulative and the inundation and destruction even greater. The historic record shows that there have been many tsunamis that have struck the shores with devastating force, sometimes reaching heights of more than 30–50 meters. For example, the 1946 tsunami generated by an earthquake off Unimak island in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, reached heights of more than 35 meters, which destroyed a reinforced concrete lighthouse and killed its occupants. Finally, the maximum height a tsunami reaches on shore is called the runup. It is the vertical distance between the maximum height reached by the water on shore and the mean sea level surface. Any tsunami runup over a meter is dangerous. The flooding by individual waves will typically last from ten minutes to a half-hour, so the danger period can last for hours. Tsunami runup at the point of impact will depend on how the energy is focused, the travel path of the tsunami waves, the coastal configuration, and the offshore topography. Small islands with steep slopes usually experience little runup—wave heights there are only slightly greater than on the open ocean. This is the reason that islands with steep-sided fringing or barrier reefs are only at moderate risk from tsunamis. However, this is not the case for islands such as the Hawaiian or the Marquesas. Both of these island chains do not have extensive barrier reefs and have broad bays exposed to the open ocean. For example, Hilo Bay at the island of Hawaii and Tahauku Bay at Hiva Oa in the Marquesas are especially vulnerable. The 1946 Aleutian tsunami resulted in runup, which exceeded 8 m at Hilo and 10 m at Tahauku; 59 people were killed in Hilo and two in Tahauku. Similarly, any gap in a reef puts the adjacent shoreline at risk. The local tsunami from the Suva earthquake of 1953 did little damage because of Fiji's extensive offshore reefs. However, two villages on the island of Viti Levu, located on opposite gaps in the reef, were extensively damaged and five people were drowned.

Source: National Weather Service—International Tsunami Information Center and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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