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 generated by wind and storms, and most tsunamis do not "break" like the curling, wind-generated waves popular with surfers. Tsunamis typically consists of multiple waves that rush ashore like a fast-rising tide with powerful currents. Tsunami waves can travel much farther inland than normal waves. When tsunamis approach shore, they behave like a very fast moving tide that extends far inland. If a tsunami-causing disturbance occurs close to the coastline, a resulting tsunami can reach coastal communities within minutes. A rule of thumb is that if you see the tsunami, it is too late to outrun it. Even small tsunamis (for example, 6 feet in height) are associated with extremely strong currents, capable of knocking someone off their feet. Because of complex interactions with the coast, tsunami waves can persist for many hours.

As with many natural phenomena, tsunamis can range in size from micro-tsunamis detectable only by sensitive instruments on the ocean floor to mega-tsunamis that can affect the coastlines of entire oceans, as with the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. If you hear a tsunami warning or if you feel strong shaking at the coast or very unusual wave activity (e.g., the sea withdrawing far from shore), it is important to move to high ground and stay away from the coast until wave activity has subsided (usually several hours to days).

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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 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 on the USGS Latest Earthquakes Map will include a...

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...
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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: September 17, 2015

California Prepares for Someday's Bigger Tsunami

California Prepares for Someday's Bigger Tsunami

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.

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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
Southeast Asia - Tsunami brought in distructive waves and destruction.
November 28, 2016

Aftermath of Southeast Asia Tsunami

Southeast Asia in May 2013. Tsunami brought in dangerous waves and destruction. 

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 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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Image: Exposed Tsunami Sand Layers
August 8, 2012

Exposed Tsunami Sand Layers

An outcrop composed of six tsunami deposits on the inland side of the lowland backing Stardust Bay over 0.5 miles from the sea. Brown soils developed into the top of each sand sheet and black tephra (air fall volcanic ash) layers between two of the sand deposits aided correlation of the six sand sheets across the study area.

Location: Stardust Bay, Sedanka Island,

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video thumbnail: Indonesian Capacity Building in Seismology and Tsunami Detection
September 10, 2009

Indonesian Capacity Building in Seismology and Tsunami Detection

The December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters of modern history, killing over 225,000 people. As a result of this catastrophe, the U.S. Geological Survey has partnered with the international community to create an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS). An important aspect of this work is the training of employees of the Indonesian

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Image: Tsunami Carried Boat

Tsunami Carried Boat

The tsunami generated by the M 8.8 earthquake carried many boats onto land - in some cases hundreds of meters inland. The tsunami wave height at this location in Concepcion Harbor (Talcahuano), Chile was about 4-5 meters (12-15 feet).

Wrecked buildings and washed-up boat far from water after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011.

Extensive damage in Japan after massive earthquake and tsunami

Extensive damage to buildings and roads, and large boats washed far ashore, provide valuable information to tsunami researchers. Here, in Natori, Japan, south of Sendai, the height of damage indicates that the water flow from the tsunami wave was about 10 meters (33 feet).

Nehalem town with tsunami evacuation sign

Nehalem town with tsunami evacuation sign

Tsunami evacuation sign in the town of Nehalem. OR.