Tsunamis and Tsunami Hazards

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You don't hear about tsunamis very often, but when they do strike, they can be huge newsmakers and can have drastic and devastating effects. The occurrence and potential for tsunamis on the coasts of the United States is not out of the question. Read on to learn about tsunamis.

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Tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides, and by onshore landslides

Tsunami Facts

  • Tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides, and by onshore landslides in which large volumes of debris fall into the water. All of these triggers can occur in the United States.
  • If a tsunami-causing disturbance occurs close to the coastline, a resulting tsunami can reach coastal communities within minutes.
  • Although many people think of a tsunami as a single, breaking wave, it typically consists of multiple waves that rush ashore like a fast-rising tide with powerful currents. Tsunamis can travel much farther inland than normal waves.


A Real Risk for the United States

Map of U.S. showing where tsunamis have impacted the west coast

The west coast of the U.S. has experienced tsunami impacts in the past

Credit: NOAA

In December 2004, when a tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean, the United States was reminded of its own tsunami risks.

In fact, devastating tsunamis have struck North America before and are sure to strike again.

Especially vulnerable are the five Pacific States — Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California — and the U.S. Caribbean islands.

In the wake of the Indian Ocean disaster, the United States is redoubling its efforts to assess the Nation's tsunami hazards, provide tsunami education, and improve its system for tsunami warning.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is helping to meet these needs, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and with coastal States and counties.

This map shows seven earthquake-generated tsunami events in the United States from the years 900 to 1964. The earthquakes that caused these tsunamis are: Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1964, magnitude 9.2; Chile, 1960, magnitude 9.5; Alaska, 1946, magnitude 7.3; Puerto Rico/Mona Rift, 1918, magnitude 7.3 to 7.5; Virgin Islands, 1867, magnitude undetermined; Cascadia, 1700, magnitude 9; and Puget Sound, 900, magnitude 7.5. Map not to scale. Sources: National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA, USGS


Tsunami Impacts

  • The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami reached heights of 65 to 100 feet in Sumatra, caused more than 200,000 deaths from Indonesia to East Africa, and registered on tide gauges throughout the world.
  • The 1964 Alaska tsunami led to 110 deaths, some as far away as Crescent City, Calif.
  • In 1918, an earthquake and tsunami killed 118 people in Puerto Rico. Several such events have struck this region in historic times
  • A tsunami that originated along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts in 1700 overran Native American fishing camps and caused damage in Japan.


Life of a Tsunami


Earthquakes are commonly associated with ground shaking that is a result of elastic waves traveling through the solid earth.

Illustration shows a cross-section of a coastline and the beginnings of a tsunami wave that is caused by an earthquake.

Note: In this figure, the waves are greatly exaggerated compared to water depth. In the open ocean, the waves are at most several meters high spread over many tens to hundreds of kilometers in length.

However, near the source of submarine earthquakes, the seafloor is "permanently" uplifted and down-dropped, pushing the entire water column up and down. The potential energy that results from pushing water above mean sea level is then transferred to horizontal propagation of the tsunami wave (kinetic energy). For the case shown above, the earthquake rupture occurred at the base of the continental slope in relatively deep water. Situations can also arise where the earthquake rupture occurs beneath the continental shelf in much shallower water.


Illustration shows a cross-section of a coastline and how a tsunami wave changes through time.

Within several minutes of the earthquake, the initial tsunami (Panel 1) is split into a tsunami that travels out to the deep ocean (distant tsunami) and another tsunami that travels towards the nearby coast (local tsunami). The height above mean sea level of the two oppositely traveling tsunamis is approximately half that of the original tsunami (Panel 1). (This is somewhat modified in three dimensions, but the same idea holds.) The speed at which both tsunamis travel varies as the square root of the water depth. Therefore, the deep-ocean tsunami travels faster than the local tsunami near shore.



Illustration shows a cross-section of a coastline and how a tsunami wave changes through time.

Several things happen as the local tsunami travels over the continental slope. Most obvious is that the amplitude increases. In addition, the wavelength decreases. This results in steepening of the leading wave — an important control of wave runup at the coast (next panel). Note that the first part of the wave reaching the local shore is a trough, which will appear as the sea recedes far from shore. This is a common natural warning sign for tsunamis. Note also that the deep ocean tsunami has traveled much farther than the local tsunami because of the higher propagation speed. As the deep ocean tsunami approaches a distant shore, amplification and shortening of the wave will occur, just as with the local tsunami shown.



Tsunami runup occurs when a peak in the tsunami wave travels from the near-shore region onto shore. Runup is a measurement of the height of the water onshore observed above a reference sea level.

Illustration shows a cross-section of a coastline and how a tsunami wave changes through time.

Except for the largest tsunamis, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean event, most tsunamis do not result in giant breaking waves (like normal surf waves at the beach that curl over as they approach shore). Rather, they come in much like very strong and fast-moving tides (i.e., strong surges and rapid changes in sea level). Much of the damage inflicted by tsunamis is caused by strong currents and floating debris. The small number of tsunamis that do break often form vertical walls of turbulent water called bores. Tsunamis will often travel much farther inland than normal waves.

Do tsunamis stop once on land? No! After runup, part of the tsunami energy is reflected back to the open ocean and scattered by sharp variations in the coastline. In addition, a tsunami can generate a particular type of coastal trapped wave called edge waves that travel back-and forth, parallel to shore. These effects result in many arrivals of the tsunami at a particular point on the coast rather than a single wave as suggested by Panel 3. Because of the complicated behavior of tsunami waves near the coast, the first runup of a tsunami is often not the largest, emphasizing the importance of not returning to a beach many hours after a tsunami first hits.

This information is from USGS Fact Sheet 2006-3023 (February 2006)


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