Researchers from NASA’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Ohio State University (OSU) used satellite altimeters to observe “merging tsunamis”. The image comes from a data-based computer model that shows Tohoku-oki tsunami waves propagation. Waves peaks are depicted in red-brown, while depressions in sea surface appear in blue-green. Grayscale outlines show the location of mid-ocean ridges, peaks, and islands. Image: NASA.


A tsunami is a series of travelling waves of extremely long length and period, generated when a large volume of ocean water is rapidly displaced by a sudden displacement of the seabed. These series of waves are generated by a displacement of massive amounts of water through underwater earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or landslides. Tsunami waves travel at very high speed across the ocean but as they begin to reach shallow water they slow down and the wave grows steeper (IRDR Glossary).

The majority of tsunami are generated by shallow large earthquakes in subduction zones. Tsunami is also known as seismic sea waves because it is most often generated by earthquakes (UNESCO).

Facts and figures

The word tsunami is derived from the Japanese word “tsu” and “nami”, meaning “Harbor” and “Wave” respectively.

The speed of tsunami waves depends on ocean depth rather than the distance from the source of the wave. Scientists can predict when a tsunami will arrive at various places by knowing the source characteristics of the earthquake that generated the tsunami and the characteristics of the seafloor along the paths to those places. When the ocean is over 19,685 feet (6,000 m) deep, unnoticed tsunami waves can travel over 500 mph (804.67 kmh). One coastal community may see no damaging tsunami wave activity while in another nearby community destructive waves can be large and violent. Reefs, bays, entrances to rivers, undersea features and the slope of the beach help to modify the tsunami as it approaches the coastline (NOAA).

Dependent on the distance of the tsunami from its source, it may be classified as a:

  • Local/near field tsunami A tsunami from a nearby source for which its destructive effects are confined to coasts less than 1 hour tsunami travel time or typically within about 100 km from its source.
  • Regional tsunami A tsunami that is capable of destruction in a particular geographic region.
  • Destructive tsunami Happens when tsunami waves become extremely large in height, they savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life. A small wave only 30 cm high in the deep ocean may grow into a much larger wave 30 m high as it sweeps over the shore.
  • Non-Destructive Tsunami Mostly happens as a result of minor earthquakes and/or other events. It can be due to the source being far away from land or the earthquake being too small to have any effect when approaching the shore. When a small tsunami comes to the shoreline it is often seen as a strong and fast-moving tide (Caribbean Tsunami Information Center).

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