The following article was adapted from NOAA's brochure Tsunami: the Great Waves.
The phenomenon we call "tsunami" is a series of traveling ocean waves of extremely long wavelength (distance between waves) generated by disturbances associated primarily with earthquakes occurring below or near the ocean floor. Underwater volcanic eruptions and landslides can also generate tsunamis. In the deep ocean, their length from wave crest to wave crest may be a hundred miles or more but with a wave height of only a few feet or less. They cannot be felt aboard ships nor can they be seen from the air in the open ocean. In deep water, the waves may reach speeds exceeding 500 miles per hour.
Tsunamis are a threat to life and property to anyone living near the ocean. For example, in 1992 and 1993 over 2,000 people were killed by tsunamis occurring in Nicaragua, Indonesia and Japan. Property damage was nearly one billion dollars. The 1960 Chile Earthquake generated a Pacific-wide tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in Chile, Hawaii, Japan and other areas in the Pacific. Large tsunamis have been known to rise over 100 feet, while tsunamis 10 to 20 feet high can be very destructive and cause many deaths and injuries. The horrendous March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed thousands.
The Tsunami Warning System (TWS) in the Pacific, comprised of 26 participating international Member States, monitors seismological and tidal stations throughout the Pacific Basin. The System evaluates potentially “tsunamigenic” earthquakes and disseminates tsunami warning information. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) is the operational center of the Pacific TWS. Located in Honolulu, Hawaii, PTWC provides tsunami warning information to national authorities in the Pacific Basin.
Tsunamis, also called seismic sea waves or, incorrectly, tidal waves, generally are caused by earthquakes, less commonly by submarine landslides, infrequently by submarine volcanic eruptions and very rarely by a large meteorite impact in the ocean. Submarine volcanic eruptions have the potential to produce truly awesome tsunami waves. The Great Krakatoa Volcanic Eruption of 1883 generated giant waves reaching heights of 125 feet above sea-level, killing thousands of people and wiping out numerous coastal villages.
The 1992 Nicaragua tsunami may have been the result of a "slow" earthquake comprised of very long-period movement occurring beneath the sea floor. This earthquake generated a devastating tsunami with localized damage to coastal communities in Nicaragua.
Not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. To generate tsunamis, earthquakes must occur underneath or near the ocean, be large and create movements in the sea floor. A strike-slip fault where the movement of adjacent plates is primarily horizontal is not likely to cause a tsunami. The San Andreas Fault in California is an example of a strike-slip fault. On the other hand, faults along subduction zones, where one plate is being pushed under another and the movement in an earthquake is primarily vertical, do have the potential top create tsunamis. The subduction zone off the Washington Coast where the Juan de Fuca plate is sliding under the North American Plate is an example of a subduction zone. All oceanic regions of the world can experience tsunamis, but in the Pacific Ocean there is a much more frequent occurrence of large, destructive tsunamis because of the many large earthquakes along the margins of the Pacific Ocean.
Ring of Fire
About two-thirds of the earth is covered by the waters of the four oceans. The Pacific Ocean is the world's largest, covering more than one third of the total surface area of our planet. The Pacific Ocean is surrounded by a series of mountain chains, deep ocean trenches and island arcs, sometimes called a "ring of fire."
The great size of the Pacific Ocean and the large earthquakes associated with the "ring of fire" combine to produce deadly tsunamis.
In less than a day, these tsunamis can travel from one side of the Pacific to the other. However, people living near areas where large earthquakes occur may find that the tsunami waves will reach their shores within minutes of the earthquake. For these reasons, the tsunami threat to many areas (Alaska, the Philippines, Japan or the U.S. West Coast) can be immediate (for tsunamis from nearby earthquakes taking only a few minutes to reach coastal areas) or less urgent (for tsunamis from distant earthquakes taking from 3 to 22 hours to reach coastal areas).
Earth and Earthquakes
The continents and sea floor that cover the earth's surface are part of a world-wide system of plates that are in motion. These motions are very slow, typically only about an inch or two per year. Earthquakes occur where the edges of plates run into one another. Such edges are called fault lines or faults. Sometimes the forces along faults can build-up over long periods of time so that when the rocks finally break an earthquake occurs. Examples of features produced by forces released along plate edge faults are the Andes Mountains in South America (on land) and the Aleutian Trench near Alaska (under water). When powerful, rapid faulting occurs underneath or near the ocean, a large earthquake is produced and, possibly, a tsunami.
The deep ocean trenches off the coasts of Alaska, the Kuril Islands, Russia, and South America are well known for their violent underwater earthquakes and as the source area for destructive Pacific-wide tsunamis.
The tsunami generating process is more complicated than a sudden push against the column of ocean water. The earthquake's magnitude and depth, water depth in the region of tsunami generation, the amount of vertical motion of the sea floor, the velocity of such motion, whether there is coincident slumping of sediments and the efficiency with which energy is transferred from the earth's crust to ocean water are all part of the generation mechanism.
Wave Height and Water Depth
In the open ocean a tsunami is less than a few feet high at the surface, but its wave height increases rapidly in shallow water. Tsunamis wave energy extends from the surface to the bottom in the deepest waters. As the tsunami attacks the coastline, the wave energy is compressed into a much shorter distance creating destructive, live-threatening waves.
In the deep ocean, destructive tsunamis can be small--often only a few feet or less in height--and cannot be seen nor can they be felt by ships. But, as the tsunami reaches shallower coastal waters, wave height can increase rapidly. Sometimes, coastal waters are drawn out into the ocean just before the tsunami strikes. When this occurs, more shoreline may be more exposed than even at the lowest tide. This major withdrawal of the sea should be taken as a warning of the tsunami waves that will follow. Tsunamis often present themselves more as "rapid extreme tides" than as a true wave. The water level along the shoreline may cycle from extreme low tide to extreme high tide in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes rather than the typical six hours or so between a "normal" low and high tide.
The graph to the right shows tides along the coast of Monterey, California in March 2011 during the period following the generation of a tsunami off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The blue line shows the predicted normal tides and the red line shows the observed tides. As can be seen, the perturbations continued for at least two days after the initial tsunami.
Pacific-Wide and Local Tsunamis
A large tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction throughout the Pacific was generated by an earthquake located off the coast of Chile in 1960. It caused loss of life and property damage not only along the Chile coast but in Hilo, Hawaii and as far away as Japan. The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 produced deadly tsunami waves in Alaska, Oregon and California.
In July 1993, a tsunami generated in the Sea of Japan killed over 120 people in Japan. Damage also occurred in Korea and Russia but not in other countries since the tsunami wave energy was confined within the Sea of Japan. The 1993 Sea of Japan tsunami is known as a "local event" since its impact was confined to the nearby regional area in the proximity of the earthquake that generated the tsunami. For people living along the northwestern coast of Japan, the tsunami waves followed the earthquake within a few minutes. Local tsunamis also occurred in Nicaragua (1992), Indonesia (1992, 1994) and the Philippines (1994) killing thousands of people. Scientific studies indicate that local tsunamis generated off the northern California, Oregon and Washington coast can arrive within five to 30 minutes after the earthquake is felt.
More recently, large earthquake and tsunami events occurred in Indonesia (2004, 2010) and Japan (2011), killing thousands. Also see Tsunami Marine Debris.
Where the ocean is over 20,000 feet deep, unnoticed tsunami waves can travel at the speed of a commercial jet plane, nearly 600 miles per hour. They can move from one side of the Pacific Ocean to the other in less than a day. This great speed makes it important to be aware of the tsunami as soon as it is generated. Scientists can predict when a tsunami will arrive since the speed of the waves varies with the square root of the water depth. Tsunamis travel much slower in shallower coastal waters where their wave heights begin to increase dramatically.
Offshore and coastal features can determine the size and impact of tsunami waves. Reefs, bays, entrances to rivers, undersea features and the slope of the beach all help to modify the tsunami as it attacks the coastline. When the tsunami reaches the coast and moves inland, the water level can rise many feet. In extreme cases, water levels have risen to more than 50 feet for tsunamis of distant origin and over 100 feet for tsunami waves generated near the earthquake's epicenter. The first wave may not be the largest in the series of waves. One coastal community may see no damaging wave activity while in another community destructive waves can be large and violent. The flooding can extend inland by 1000 feet or more, covering large expanses of land with water and debris.
Since scientists cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, they cannot determine exactly when a tsunami will be generated. However, by looking at past historical tsunamis, scientists know where tsunamis are most likely to be generated. Past tsunami height measurements are useful in predicting future tsunami impact and flooding limits at specific coastal locations and communities. Historical tsunami research may prove helpful in analyzing the frequency of occurrence of tsunamis and their relationship to large earthquakes.
Can You Surf Tsunamis?
The conventional answer to this question is no, for a variety of reasons, including the speed of tsunami waves and the fact that they are more akin to a very fast tidal surge than a normal ocean wave. However, champion surfer Felipe Pomar and a friend are credited with surfing a tsunami in Peru in 1974.
Tsunami Warning Centers
As part of an international cooperative effort to save lives and protect property, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service operates two tsunami warning centers. NOAA's funding for these tsunami warning centers, however, is always subject to budget constraints. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (ATWC) in Palmer, Alaska, serves as the regional Tsunami Warning Center for Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Ewa Beach (near Honolulu), Hawaii, serves as the regional Tsunami Warning Center for Hawaii and as a national/international warning center for tsunamis that pose a Pacific-wide threat. This international warning effort became a formal arrangement in 1965 when PTWC assumed the international warning responsibilities of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System (PTWS). The PTWS is comprised of 26 international Member States that are organized as the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific. Many Member States countries operate national tsunami warning centers, providing warning services for their local area.
The objective of the PTWS is to detect, locate and determine the magnitude of potentially "tsunamigenic" earthquakes occurring in the Pacific Basin or its immediate margins. Earthquake information is provided by seismic stations operated by PTWC, ATWC, the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center and international sources. If the location and magnitude of an earthquake meet the known criteria for generation of a tsunami, a tsunami warning is issued to warn of an imminent tsunami hazard.
The warning includes predicted tsunami arrival times at selected coastal communities within the geographic area defined by the maximum distance the tsunami could travel in a few hours. A tsunami watch with additional predicted tsunami arrival times is issued for a geographic area defined by the distance the tsunami could travel in a subsequent time period.
Seismic and Water Level Stations of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System
If a significant tsunami is detected by sea-level monitoring instrumentation, the tsunami warning is extended to the entire Pacific Basin. Sea-level (or tidal) information is provided by NOAA's National Ocean Service, PTWC, ATWC, university monitoring networks and the other participating nations of the PTWS. The International Tsunami Information Center, part of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, monitors and evaluates the performance and effectiveness of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System. This effort encourages the most effective data collection, data analysis, tsunami impact assessment and warning dissemination to all TWS participants.
Tsunami watches, warning, and information bulletins are disseminated to appropriate emergency officials and the general public by a variety of communication methods.
- Tsunamis that strike coastal locations in the Pacific Ocean Basin are most always caused by earthquakes. These earthquakes might occur far away or near where you live.
- Some tsunamis can be very large. In coastal areas their height can be as great as 30 feet or more (100 feet in extreme cases), and they can move inland several hundred feet.
- All low lying coastal areas can be struck by tsunamis.
- A tsunami consists of a series of waves. Often the first wave may not be the largest. The danger from a tsunami can last for several hours after the arrival of the first wave.
- Tsunamis can move faster than a person can run.
- Sometimes a tsunami causes the water near shore to recede, exposing the ocean floor. The force of some tsunamis is enormous. Large rocks weighing several tons along with boats and other debris can be moved inland hundreds of feet by the tsunami wave activity. Homes and other buildings are destroyed. All this material and water move with great force and can kill or injure people.
- Tsunamis can occur at any time, day or night.
- Tsunamis can travel up rivers and streams that lead to the ocean.
What You Should Do
Be aware of tsunami facts. This knowledge could save your life! Share this knowledge with your relatives and friends. It could save their lives!
- If you are in school and you hear there is a tsunami warning, you should follow the advice of teachers and other school personnel.
- If you are at home and hear there is a tsunami warning, you should make sure your entire family is aware of the warning. Your family should evacuate your house if you live in a tsunami evacuation zone. Move in an orderly, calm and safe manner to the evacuation site or to any safe place outside your evacuation zone. Follow the advice of local emergency and law enforcement authorities.
- If you are at the beach or near the ocean and you feel the earth shake, move immediately to higher ground. DO NOT wait for a tsunami warning to be announced. Stay away from rivers and streams that lead to the ocean as you would stay away from the beach and ocean if there is a tsunami. Also stay away from harbor areas. A regional tsunami from a local earthquake could strike some areas before a tsunami warning could be announced.
- Tsunamis generated in distant locations will generally give people enough time to move to higher ground. For locally generated tsunamis, where you might feel the ground shake, you may only have a few minutes to move to higher ground.
- High, multi-story, reinforced concrete hotels are located in many low-lying coastal areas. The upper floors of these hotels can provide a safe place to find refuge should there be a tsunami warning and you cannot move quickly inland to higher ground. Local Civil Defense procedures may, however, not allow this type of evacuation in your area. Homes and small buildings located in low lying coastal areas are not designed to withstand tsunami impacts. Do not stay in these structures should there be a tsunami warning.
- Offshore reefs and shallow areas may help break the force of tsunami waves, but large and dangerous waves can still be a threat to coastal residents in these areas. Staying away from all low-lying coastal areas is the safest advice when there is a tsunami warning.
If You Are on a Boat or Ship
- Since tsunami wave activity is imperceptible in the open ocean, do not return to port if you are at sea and a tsunami warning has been issued for your area. Tsunamis can cause rapid changes in water level and unpredictable, dangerous currents in harbors and ports.
- If there is time to move your boat or ship from port to deep water (after you know a tsunami warning has been issued), you should weigh the following considerations:
- Most large harbors and ports are under the control of a harbor authority and/or a vessel traffic system. These authorities direct operations during periods of increased readiness (should a tsunami be expected), including the forced movement of vessels if deemed necessary. Keep in contact with the authorities should a forced movement of vessels be directed.
- Smaller ports may not be under the control of a harbor authority. If you are aware there is a tsunami warning and you have time to move your vessel to deep water, then you may want to do so in an orderly manner, in consideration of other vessels. Owners of small boats may find it safest to leave their boat at the pier and physically move to higher ground, particularly in the event of a locally generated tsunami. Concurrent severe weather conditions (rough seas outside of safe harbor) could present a greater hazardous situation to small boats, so physically moving yourself to higher ground may be the only option.
- Damaging wave activity and unpredictable currents can effect harbors for a period of time following the initial tsunami impact on the coast. Contact the harbor authority before returning to port, making sure to verify that conditions in the harbor are safe for navigation and berthing.
As dangerous as tsunamis are, they do not happen very often. You should not let this natural hazard diminish your enjoyment of the beach and ocean. But, if you think a tsunami may be coming, the ground shakes under your feet or you hear there is a warning, tell your relatives and friends, and move quickly to higher ground.
More on Tsunamis
Also see this article and the following animated video, The Science of Tsunamis:
References and Additional Information
Tsunami Article (Wikipedia)
Tsunami Information (NOAA)
Tsunami Brochure (NOAA)
Tsunami Preparedness (FEMA)
Interview with James Goff, professor of tsunami science at the University of New South Wales