Tsunami Essay

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A tsunami is a wave (sometimes improperly called a tidal wave) generated by an earthquake that can do substantial damage to property and create considerable loss of life when the wave crashes ashore. Tsunamis are created when an earthquake creates a pressure wave that moves ocean water upward, creating a generally small (sometimes as small as a few centimeters), but highly energetic wave that moves rapidly from the epicenter of the earthquake. The wave can be generated along the entire rupture zone of the earthquake, which, in the case of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, was over 100 kilometers long.

The size of the waves that hit the shore depends on the bathymetry of the coastal area-that is, the contours of the undersea topography. Deeper waters result in shorter waves, while a gently rising shoreline will see very large waves as the wave slows. Much of the bathymetry in less developed areas, and even in some developed nations, is not well known, which makes risk assessment difficult.

In 1946, a tsunami originating in the Aleutian Islands killed over 170 people on Maui. Because of this tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning center was established in Hawaii in 1949. In 1960, 61 people were killed on Hawaii and over 160 on Honshu, Japan, from a tsunami that came from the coast of Chile. Many of the fatalities in the 1964 earthquake in Alaska were caused by tsunamis at Valdez, Alaska; near the epicenter in Kodiak, Alaska; and as far away as Hawaii and in Crescent City, California, where 11 people were killed. In 1998, a huge tsunami killed 10,000 in Papua New Guinea. Another destructive tsunami was generated by the 2004 magnitude 9.0 Sumatra earthquake, which struck Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India, and Sri Lanka. Wave heights were highest in Indonesia, at 40 meters (about 130 feet); in other nations, the waves were smaller, but even a three-meter (10-foot) wave can damage property and drown people. The total death toll was over 200,000 people. Another tsunami hit Indonesia in 2006.

Keeping people safe from tsunami waves is a challenge, but some progress has been made. Perhaps the most effective method is warning systems. Such systems would need to integrate individual nations’ tsunami monitoring networks and must ensure that information reaches where it is needed at the coastal areas, which may not be anywhere near a national capital.

Other ways to reduce the hazard to people is through disaster planning and hazard mitigation. Such efforts include hazard signage, informing people about the tsunami hazard and what to do if a tsunami happens, warnings (through the news media and sirens), and evacuation plans and drills (such as those conducted in communities in Oregon and Alaska). Public education is important for informing people of the natural precursors of a possible tsunami, such as a local earthquake that would cue people to move to higher ground, or the rapid outflow of ocean waters that often precedes a major tsunami wave. Mitigation efforts include buildings designed to be strong enough to withstand tsunamis, and tall enough to allow people to “vertically evacuate” into the upper floors of buildings. Such measures would eliminate the need to run inland if a warning is received or if one detects natural tsunami precursors. Some communities may choose to adopt set-back requirements to keep at least some buildings, like schools or hospitals, far away from the possible inundation zone.

Protecting the public from tsunamis is challenging because of the relatively low probability of such an event, and the widespread lack of knowledge about them. In the United States, for example, southeastern states have jointed the National Tsunami Hazard Reduction Program (NTHRP), because of the remote chance of a distant earthquake triggering a tsunami that would traverse the Atlantic. Historic evidence suggests that such events have happened in the past.


  1. N. Bernard, Developing TsunamiResilient Communities: The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (Springer, 2005);
  2. Thomas Aaron Green, “Tsunamis: How Safe Is the United States?” Pocus on Geography (v.48/4, 2006);
  3. F. Lander, P.A. Lockridge, and M.J. Kozuch, Tsunamis Affecting the West Coast of the United States 1806-1992 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1993).

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