What Tsunamies Are & What Causes Them

What a Tsunami Is
Tsunamis are ocean waves produced by earthquakes or underwater landslides. The word is Japanese and means "harbor wave," because of the devastating effects these waves have had on low-lying Japanese coastal communities. Tsunamis are often incorrectly referred to as tidal waves, but a tsunami is actually a series of waves that can travel at speeds averaging 450 (and up to 600) miles per hour in the open ocean. In the open ocean, tsunamis would not be felt by ships because the wavelength would be hundreds of miles long, with an amplitude of only a few feet. This would also make them unnoticeable from the air. As the waves approach the coast, their speed decreases and their amplitude increases. Unusual wave heights have been known to be over 100 feet high. However, waves that are 10 to 20 feet high can be very destructive and cause many deaths or injuries.

How Tsunamis are Formed
Tsunamis are most often generated by earthquake-induced movement of the ocean floor. Landslides, volcanic eruptions, and even meteorites can also generate a tsunami. If a major earthquake is felt, a tsunami could reach the beach in a few minutes, even before a warning is issued. Areas at greatest risk are less than 25 feet above sea level and within one mile of the shoreline. Most deaths caused by a tsunami are because of drowning. Associated risks include flooding, contamination of drinking water, fires from ruptured tanks or gas lines, and the loss of vital community infrastructure (police, fire, and medical facilities).

From an initial tsunami generating source area, waves travel outward in all directions much like the ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond. As these waves approach coastal areas, the time between successive wave crests varies from 5 to 90 minutes. The first wave is usually not the largest in the series of waves, nor is it the most significant. Furthermore, one coastal community may experience no damaging waves while another, not that far away, may experience destructive deadly waves. Depending on a number of factors, some low-lying areas could experience severe inland inundation of water and debris of more than 1,000 feet.

Learn More
Learn whether tsunamis have occurred in your area by contacting your local emergency management office, National Weather Service office, or American Red Cross chapter. If you are in a tsunami risk area, learn how to protect yourself, your family, and your property.