Tsunami are described in the Earthquakes chapter as damaging waves that result from the sharp jolt to the water from an undersea earthquake. Landslides, meteorite impacts, or any other jolt to ocean water may form a tsunami (Figure below). Tsunami can travel at speeds of 800 kilometers per hour (500 miles per hour).
Tsunami have small wave heights and long wavelengths so they are usually unnoticed at sea. As the wave rides up the continental shelf the wave height increases.
A video explanation of tsunami is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StdqGoezNrY
The wave speed of a tsunami is also slowed by friction with the shallower ocean floor, which causes the wavelength to decrease, creating a much taller wave.
Many people caught in a tsunami have no warning of its approach. Since the wavelength is long, a long time can pass between crests or troughs onshore. In 1755 in Lisbon, an offshore earthquake caused a great deal of damage on land. People rushed to the open space of the shore and discovered that the water was flowing seaward fast. The trough of the tsunami wave reached shore first. People who went out onto the open beach were drowned when the crest of the wave reached shore.
Large tsunami in the Indian Ocean and more recently Japan have killed hundreds of thousands of people in recent years. The west coast is vulnerable to tsunami since it sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Scientists are trying to learn everything they can about predicting tsunamis before a massive one strikes a little closer to home. Learn more at: http://science.kqed.org/quest/video/scary-tsunamis/.
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