Japan Tsunami 2011
Japan Tsunami 2011

A tsunami also known as a seismic sea wave, is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other underwater explosions (including detonations of underwater nuclear devices), landslides, glacier calvings, meteorite impacts and other disturbances above or below water all have the potential to generate a tsunami. Unlike normal ocean waves which are generated by wind or tides which are generated by the gravitational pull of the Moon and Sun, a tsunami is generated by the displacement of water.

Tsunami waves do not resemble normal sea waves, because their wavelength is far longer. Rather than appearing as a breaking wave, a tsunami may instead initially resemble a rapidly rising tide, and for this reason they are often referred to as tidal waves, although this usage is not favored by the scientific community because tsunamis are not tidal in nature. Tsunamis generally consist of a series of waves with periods ranging from minutes to hours, arriving in a so-called “wave train”. Wave heights of tens of meters can be generated by large events. Although the impact of tsunamis is limited to coastal areas, their destructive power can be enormous and they can affect entire ocean basins; the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was among the deadliest natural disasters in human history with at least 230,000 people killed or missing in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

What Causes Tsunami?

Earthquake-induced movement of the ocean floor most often generates tsunamis. If a major earthquake or landslide occurs close to shore, the first wave in a series could reach the beach in a few minutes, even before a warning is issued. Areas are at greater risk if they are less than 25 feet above sea level and within a mile of the shoreline. Drowning is the most common cause of death associated with a tsunami. Tsunami waves and the receding water are very destructive to structures in the run-up zone. Other hazards include flooding, contamination of drinking water, and fires from gas lines or ruptured tanks.

Generation mechanisms

The principal generation mechanism (or cause) of a tsunami is the displacement of a substantial volume of water or perturbation of the sea. This displacement of water is usually attributed to either earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, glacier calvings or more rarely by meteorites and nuclear tests. The waves formed in this way are then sustained by gravity. Tides do not play any part in the generation of tsunamis.


Tsunami can be generated when the sea floor abruptly deforms and vertically displaces the overlying water. Tectonic earthquakes are a particular kind of earthquake that are associated with the Earth’s crustal deformation; when these earthquakes occur beneath the sea, the water above the deformed area is displaced from its equilibrium position. More specifically, a tsunami can be generated when thrust faults associated with convergent or destructive plate boundaries move abruptly, resulting in water displacement, owing to the vertical component of movement involved. Movement on normal (extensional) faults can also cause displacement of the seabed, but only the largest of such events (typically related to flexure in the outer trench swell) cause enough displacement to give rise to a significant tsunami, such as the 1977 Sumba and 1933 Sanriku events.

Tsunamis have a small amplitude (wave height) offshore, and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometres long, whereas normal ocean waves have a wavelength of only 30 or 40 metres), which is why they generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a slight swell usually about 300 millimetres (12 in) above the normal sea surface. They grow in height when they reach shallower water, in a wave shoaling process described below. A tsunami can occur in any tidal state and even at low tide can still inundate coastal areas.

On April 1, 1946, a magnitude-7.8 (Richter Scale) earthquake occurred near the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. It generated a tsunami which inundated Hilo on the island of Hawai’i with a 14-metre high (46 ft) surge. The area where the earthquake occurred is where the Pacific Ocean floor is subducting (or being pushed downwards) under Alaska.

Examples of tsunami originating at locations away from convergent boundaries include Storegga about 8,000 years ago, Grand Banks 1929, Papua New Guinea 1998 (Tappin, 2001). The Grand Banks and Papua New Guinea tsunamis came from earthquakes which destabilised sediments, causing them to flow into the ocean and generate a tsunami. They dissipated before traveling transoceanic distances.

The cause of the Storegga sediment failure is unknown. Possibilities include an overloading of the sediments, an earthquake or a release of gas hydrates (methane etc.).

The 1960 Valdivia earthquake (Mw 9.5), 1964 Alaska earthquake (Mw 9.2), 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (Mw 9.2), and 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (Mw9.0) are recent examples of powerful megathrust earthquakes that generated tsunamis (known as teletsunamis) that can cross entire oceans. Smaller (Mw 4.2) earthquakes in Japan can trigger tsunamis (called local and regional tsunamis) that can only devastate nearby coasts, but can do so in only a few minutes.


In the 1950s, it was discovered that larger tsunamis than had previously been believed possible could be caused by giant submarine landslides. These rapidly displace large water volumes, as energy transfers to the water at a rate faster than the water can absorb. Their existence was confirmed in 1958, when a giant landslide in Lituya Bay, Alaska, caused the highest wave ever recorded, which had a height of 524 metres (over 1700 feet). The wave did not travel far, as it struck land almost immediately. Two people fishing in the bay were killed, but another boat amazingly managed to ride the wave.

Another landslide-tsunami event occurred in 1963 when a massive landslide from Monte Toc entered the Vajont Dam in Italy. The resulting wave surged over the 262 m (860 ft) high dam by 250 metres (820 ft) and destroyed several towns. Around 2,000 people died. Scientists named these waves megatsunamis.

Some geologists claim that large landslides from volcanic islands, e.g. Cumbre Vieja on La Palma in the Canary Islands, may be able to generate megatsunamis that can cross oceans, but this is disputed by many others.

In general, landslides generate displacements mainly in the shallower parts of the coastline, and there is conjecture about the nature of large landslides that enter water. This has been shown to lead to effect water in enclosed bays and lakes, but a landslide large enough to cause a transoceanic tsunami has not occurred within recorded history. Susceptible locations are believed to be the Big Island of Hawaii, Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, and Cumbre Vieja on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands; along with other volcanic ocean islands. This is because large masses of relatively unconsolidated volcanic material occurs on the flanks and in some cases detachment planes are believed to be developing. However, there is growing controversy about how dangerous these slopes actually are.


Some meteorological conditions, especially rapid changes in barometric pressure, as seen with the passing of a front, can displace bodies of water enough to cause trains of waves with wavelengths comparable to seismic tsunami, but usually with lower energies. These are essentially dynamically equivalent to seismic tsunami, the only differences being that meteotsunami lack the transoceanic reach of significant seismic tsunami, and that the force that displaces the water is sustained over some length of time such that meteotsunami can’t be modeled as having been caused instantaneously. In spite of their lower energies, on shorelines where they can be amplified by resonance they are sometimes powerful enough to cause localized damage and potential for loss of life. They have been documented in many places, including the Great Lakes, the Aegean Sea, the English Channel, and the Balearic Islands, where they are common enough to have a local name, rissaga. In Sicily they are called marubbio and in Nagasaki Bay they are called abiki. Some examples of destructive meteotsunami include 31 March 1979 at Nagasaki and 15 June 2006 at Menorca, the latter causing damage in the tens of millions of euros.

Meteotsunami should not be confused with storm surges, which are local increases in sea level associated with the low barometric pressure of passing tropical cyclones, nor should they be confused with setup, the temporary local raising of sea level caused by strong on-shore winds. Storm surges and setup are also dangerous causes of coastal flooding in severe weather but their dynamics are completely unrelated to tsunami waves. They are unable to propagate beyond their sources, as waves do.


Tsunamis cause damage by two mechanisms: the smashing force of a wall of water travelling at high speed, and the destructive power of a large volume of water draining off the land and carrying a large amount of debris with it, even with waves that do not appear to be large.

While everyday wind waves have a wavelength (from crest to crest) of about 100 metres (330 ft) and a height of roughly 2 metres (6.6 ft), a tsunami in the deep ocean has a much larger wavelength of up to 200 kilometres (120 mi). Such a wave travels at well over 800 kilometres per hour (500 mph), but owing to the enormous wavelength the wave oscillation at any given point takes 20 or 30 minutes to complete a cycle and has an amplitude of only about 1 metre (3.3 ft). This makes tsunamis difficult to detect over deep water, where ships are unable to feel their passage.

The velocity of a tsunami can be calculated by obtaining the square root of the depth of the water in meters multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity (approximated to 10 m sec2). For example, if the Pacific Ocean is considered to have a depth of 5000 meters, the velocity of a tsunami would be the square root of √5000 x 10 = √50000 = ~224 meters per second (735 feet per second), which equates to a speed of ~806 kilometers per hour or about 500 miles per hour. This formula is the same as used for calculating the velocity of shallow waves, because a tsunami behaves like a shallow wave as it peak to peak value reaches from the floor of the ocean to the surface.

The reason for the Japanese name “harbour wave” is that sometimes a village’s fishermen would sail out, and encounter no unusual waves while out at sea fishing, and come back to land to find their village devastated by a huge wave.

As the tsunami approaches the coast and the waters become shallow, wave shoaling compresses the wave and its speed decreases below 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph). Its wavelength diminishes to less than 20 kilometres (12 mi) and its amplitude grows enormously. Since the wave still has the same very long period, the tsunami may take minutes to reach full height. Except for the very largest tsunamis, the approaching wave does not break, but rather appears like a fast-moving tidal bore. Open bays and coastlines adjacent to very deep water may shape the tsunami further into a step-like wave with a steep-breaking front.

When the tsunami’s wave peak reaches the shore, the resulting temporary rise in sea level is termed run up. Run up is measured in metres above a reference sea level. A large tsunami may feature multiple waves arriving over a period of hours, with significant time between the wave crests. The first wave to reach the shore may not have the highest run up.

About 80% of tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean, but they are possible wherever there are large bodies of water, including lakes. They are caused by earthquakes, landslides, volcanic explosions, glacier calvings, and bolides.

10 Worst Tsunamis

1. Sumatra, Indonesia – 26 December 2004

2. North Pacific Coast, Japan – 11 March 2011

3. Lisbon, Portugal – 1 November 1755

4. Krakatau, Indonesia – 27 August 1883

5. Enshunada Sea, Japan – 20 September 1498

6. Nankaido, Japan – 28 October 1707

7. Sanriku, Japan – 15 June 1896

8. Northern Chile – 13 August 1868

9. Ryuku Islands, Japan – 24 April 1771

10. Ise Bay, Japan – 18 January 1586

Wikipedia: Tsunami
International Tsunami Information Center:  What are tsunamis, and what causes them?
Australian Geographic Society: The 10 most destructive tsunamis in history