Tsunamis loom large in popular culture, but there are a number of misconceptions about these large waves. First, tsunamis have nothing to do with the tides, so it is a misnomer to refer to them as “tidal waves.” There are actual tidal waves (see section 11.1), but they are not related to tsunamis. Second, the giant, curling wave that is taller than skyscrapers and destroys cities in science fiction movies is also a fabrication, as tsunamis do not behave that way, as described below.
Tsunamis are large waves that are usually the result of seismic activity, such as the rising or falling of the seafloor due to earthquakes, although volcanic activity and landslides can also cause tsunamis in the form of splash waves (see section 10.1). As the seafloor rises or falls, so does the water column above it, creating waves. Only vertical seismic disturbances cause tsunamis, not horizontal movements. These vertical seafloor movements are usually less than 10 m high, so the resulting wave will be of an equal or lesser height at sea. While the tsunamis have a relatively small height at the point of origin, they have very long wavelengths (100-200 km). Because of the long wavelength, they behave as shallow water waves throughout the entire ocean; the depth of the ocean is always shallower than half of their wavelength. As shallow water waves, their speed depends on water depth, but they can still travel at speeds over 750 km/hr (Figure 10.4.1)!
When tsunamis approach land, they behave just like any other wave; as the depth becomes shallower, the waves slow down and the wave height begins to increase. However, contrary to popular belief, tsunamis do not arrive on shore as giant, cresting waves. Since their wavelength is so long, it is impossible for their height to ever exceed 1/7 of their wavelength, so the waves don’t actually curl or break. Instead, they usually hit the shore as sudden surges of water causing a very rapid increase in sea level, like that of an enormous rise in tide. It may take several minutes for the wave to pass, during which time sea level can rise to 40 m higher than usual.
Large tsunamis occur every 2-3 years, with very large, damaging events happening every 15-20 years. The most devastating tsunami in terms of loss of life resulted from a magnitude 9 earthquake in Indonesia in 2004 (Figure 10.4.2), which created waves up to 33 m tall and left about 230,000 people dead in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. In 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami up to 40.5 m high, which resulted in over 18,000 deaths. This earthquake also caused the Fukishima nuclear accident, and moved Japan about 8 inches closer to the U.S.