Could a large tsunami happen in the United States?

Large tsunamis have occurred in the United States and will undoubtedly occur again.

Significant earthquakes around the Pacific rim have generated tsunamis that struck Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. west coast. One of the largest and most devastating tsunamis that Hawaii has experienced was in 1946 from an earthquake along the Aleutian subduction zone. Runup heights reached a maximum of 33 to 55 feet and killed 159 people. The tsunami generated by the 1964 magnitude 9.2 earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska caused damage and loss of life across the Pacific, including Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington.

Since the only major tsunami-generating subduction zones in the Atlantic Ocean are along the Caribbean Sea, tsunamis in the Atlantic have been relatively infrequent. The most noteworthy tsunami resulted from the 1929 magnitude 7.3 Grand Banks earthquake near Newfoundland. The maximum tsunami runup was 6 to 23 feet, which was concentrated on the coast of Newfoundland, although it was recorded as far south as South Carolina. A couple of tsunamis reported from Caribbean earthquakes had runups of less than 3 feet.

Learn more: Can it Happen Here?

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What is it about an earthquake that causes a tsunami?

Although earthquake magnitude is one factor that affects tsunami generation, there are other important factors to consider. The earthquake must be a shallow marine event that displaces the seafloor. Thrust earthquakes (as opposed to strike slip) are far more likely to generate tsunamis, but small tsunamis have occurred in a few cases from large (i...

What is the difference between a tsunami and a tidal wave?

Although both are sea waves, a tsunami and a tidal wave are two different and unrelated phenomena. A tidal wave is a shallow water wave caused by the gravitational interactions between the Sun, Moon, and Earth. ("Tidal wave" was used in earlier times to describe what we now call a tsunami.) A tsunamis is an ocean wave triggered by large...

Is there a system to warn populations of an imminent occurrence of a tsunami?

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) maintains the U.S. Tsunami Warning Centers , which work in conjunction with USGS seismic networks to help determine when and where to issue tsunami warnings. If an earthquake meets certain criteria for potentially generating a tsunami, the pop-up window and the event page for that earthquake...

What are Tsunamis?

Tsunamis are ocean waves triggered by large earthquakes that occur near or under the ocean, volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides, and by onshore landslides in which large volumes of debris fall into the water. Scientists do not use the term "tidal wave" because these waves are not caused by tides. Tsunami waves are unlike typical ocean waves...
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Date published: March 5, 2019

New tsunami evidence along one of Earth’s largest faults, the Alaska-Aleutian megathrust

Recent geological studies of a key section of the Aleutian Island chain of Alaska suggest Aleutian tsunamis may occur more frequently than previously understood.

Date published: February 1, 2016

50-Year-Old Mystery Solved: Seafloor Mapping Reveals Cause of 1964 Tsunami that Destroyed Alaskan Village

Minutes after the 1964 magnitude-9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake began shaking, a series of tsunami waves swept through the village of Chenega in Prince William Sound, destroying all but two of the buildings and killing 23 of the 75 inhabitants. 

Date published: September 18, 2015

Are American Cities Prepared For Massive Tsunamis?

Are American Cities Prepared For Massive Tsunamis?

Date published: August 20, 2015

Disaster Scenario: SoCal Tsunami Could Hit Quickly

Disaster Scenario: SoCal Tsunami Could Hit Quickly

Date published: September 5, 2013

California Tsunami Would Have Costly Aftermath

The fearsome aftermath of a tsunami striking California might cost at least $3.4 billion to repair, but neither of the state's nuclear power plants would be damaged, suggests a new analysis that could help officials and the public prepare for a tsunami and reduce risks before any such disasters happen.

Date published: March 17, 2011

California's tsunami threat

The images of destruction coming from Japan have caused those who dwell on America's West Coast to wonder: Could a devastating tsunami hit here? The answer is a resounding yes. Our coast is under threat from two types of tsunamis.

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Tsunami-evacuation sign in the city of Nehalem, Oregon
April 10, 2017

Tsunami-evacuation sign in the city of Nehalem, Oregon

Tsunami-evacuation sign in the city of Nehalem, Oregon

Preparing for Tsunami Hazards on Washington’s Pacific Coast
February 1, 2017

Preparing for Tsunami Hazards on Washington’s Pacific Coast

Preparing for Tsunami Hazards on Washington’s Pacific Coast

Map of coastal communities in a tsunami-hazard zone in Washington
February 1, 2017

Map of coastal communities in a tsunami-hazard zone in Washington

Map of coastal communities in a tsunami-hazard zone in the state of Washington. Credit: Nathan Wood, USGS, and Mathew Schmidtlein, Sacramento State University

Animation of Tsunami Scenario in the Pacific Northwest
February 1, 2017

Animation of Tsunami Scenario in the Pacific Northwest

Animation of what a potential tsunami would look like generated from a large and hypothetical magnitude 9 subduction earthquake in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The height of the tsunami waves is exaggerated compared to the land surface. Credit: Eric Geist, USGS

January 26, 2017

PubTalk 1/2017 — Unusual sources of tsunamis

A presentation on "Unusual Sources of Tsunamis From Krakatoa to Monterey Bay" by Eric Geist, USGS Research Geophysicist

- Not all tsunamis are generated by earthquakes.
- Tsunamis can be caused by volcanoes, landslides, and even atmospheric disturbances
- Data from tide gauges can help unravel the complex physics of these sources

Videographers:

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Attribution: Natural Hazards, Pacific
December 18, 2014

PubTalk 12/2014 — Ten Years After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

How geology is reducing tsunami risk

by Bruce Jaffe, USGS Research Oceanographer

 

  • Improvements in tsunamis warnings since the 2004 Indian Ocean devastation.
  • Is California vulnerable to tsunamis?
  • What is the geologic calling card of a tsunami?
  • How does the geologic record foretell of future
...
February 24, 2014

PubTalk 2/2014 — 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami 50th Anniv.

By George Plafker, USGS Geologist Emeritus

 

  • March 27th, 1964, one of the most violent earthquakes of all time rocked southern Alaska.
  • More than 50,000 square miles of the state was tilted to new elevation, and the resulting property damage disrupted the state's economy.
  • Within 24 hours, a team of USGS geologists
...
February 28, 2013

PubTalk 2/2013 — Is "THE IMPOSSIBLE" Possible in the Pacific Northwest

-- Coastal Community Tsunami Hazards and Risk

By Nathan Wood, Geographer

 

  • The movie "The Impossible", currently showing in theaters, portrays the destruction of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
  • Recent tsunami disasters in the Pacific Ocean testify to their destructive power -- are similar events likely in the
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Many people looking at a log on a hill
August 8, 2012

USGS team looking at a tsunami-rafted log above Stardust Bay, Alaska

USGS Alaska Earthquake Hazards research team investigates a tsunami-rafted drift log high above sea level at Stardust Bay, Sedanka Island, Alaska.

video thumbnail: Tsunami Preparedness along the West Coast, USA
April 9, 2009

Tsunami Preparedness along the West Coast, USA

Tsunami Preparedness explains how and why tsunamis occur, how to know that a tsunami is approaching, and what you should do. These issues are addressed by scientists, emergency managers, and first responders.

June 30, 2005

PubTalk — Tsunamis

Lessons and Questions from the Indian Ocean Disaster

By Eric L. Geist, geophysicist, Bruce E. Jaffe, oceanographer, and Brian F. Atwater, geologist

  • What do computer animations reveal about transoceanic tsunamis?
  • What varied marks of its force and height did the December 26 tsunami leave in the coa stal environment?
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