What are tsunamis?

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Episode Number: 57

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Location Taken: US

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Welcome to CoreFacts, where we're always short on time and big on science. I'm Steve Sobieszczyk. Today we have another pretty straight forward question.

What are tsunamis?

Tsunamis are ocean waves caused by large earthquakes and landslides that occur near or under the ocean. 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. When tsunamis approach shore, they behave like a very fast moving tide that extends far inland. A rule of thumb is that if you see the tsunami, it is too late to out run it. Most tsunamis do not "break" like the curling, wind-generated waves popular with surfers. Most "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 (for example, 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. For more general information on tsunamis and what to do during a tsunami warning, please visit sites sponsored by FEMA, the National Weather Servicestate agenciesNOAA, and the USGS as seen in our show notes.

And now you know. Join us every weekday for a new CoreFact. If you have a question you think we should answer on the air, email it to us at corefacts@usgs.gov or leave us a voicemail at 703-648-5600; long distance fees do apply.

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