The science of Tsunamies


A tsunami is one of the most destructive and powerful forces on the planet. As well as being destructive, tsunamis are also awe-inspiring, terrifying, beautiful, and fascinating. Figuring them out is an essential part of preparing for the event of one. Of course, we may not be able to stop them occurring, but we can certainly be more prepared when they do eventually happen. So, to fully grasp how tsunamis work, we need to take a look at the science behind them.

What Is A Tsunami?

A tsunami, or seismic wave, is sometimes known as a tidal wave, but this can be misleading. Tsunamis have nothing to do with the tide and can occur at any time for a multitude of different reasons. A tsunami is technically not necessarily a seismic wave either because it doesn’t require a seismic event for it to happen. Simply put, a tsunami is a series of long, high waves, that build to a point and race toward the shoreline.

Tsunamis are highly destructive, mainly due to the wavelength being far longer, larger, and more powerful than regular waves. Although they occur in coastal areas, tsunamis can have wide-reaching consequences and repercussions. One of the worst tsunamis in recent history was the one that occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004. This is considered one of the deadliest disasters in human history, with close to 250,000 people across 14 countries being killed.

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How Do They Work?

Tsunamis are fascinating because they don’t work tidally, like the rest of the ocean. Instead, they can be caused by events that lead to disturbances in the water. Seismic mechanisms like earthquakes can certainly cause tsunamis to occur, but, they can also be caused by things like landslides. Where the event occurs, waves are generated in the water, and there travel outward in all directions. They all group together to form one giant wave, which increases in height as it heads towards the shoreline.

The topography of the ocean and surrounding area can affect the way the wave builds, as well as the size it reaches. Sometimes there is more than one wave, and they can vary in height and power. It’s important to remember that not all tsunamis are destructive, but they are all dangerous due to the fact that they can hit at any time. The coastal areas of the United States could be at risk from a tsunami at any particular time.

The physics of tsunamis are intriguing because the height of the wave is directly related to the amount of disturbance caused on the ocean floor. The tsunami also travels at a speed relative to the depth of the water, and they lose energy as they reach the shore – this is why they crash against the shoreline and cause such devastation.


The Future

While tsunamis do still happen, and could at any time, they are not as commonplace as they could be, and this is a good thing. In fact, there are better ways of measuring and tracking tsunamis these days, for better preparation. The DART System is one of the most effective and commonplace, and a great way of tracking potential tsunamis when they are still far from the shore. Satellites have also been used to try to track and measure tsunamis, and how big they can be expected to be.

One of the ways to predict if a tsunami is coming is by keeping an eye on the shoreline. The water will be dragged away from the usual area much further and faster than normal, sometimes for miles. This is because it is sucked up under the massive tidal wave that is traveling towards the shore. If this phenomenon is ever seen, the area should be evacuated immediately; the wave will be traveling fast, and once it reaches breaking point on the shore, will be almost impossible to run from.

Tsunamis continue to be one of the biggest threats in the ocean, and they cause long-lasting devastation. But, the more we can learn about them, the better prepared we will be to deal with them when they occur. Science is constantly evolving, and oceanographers are discovering more about tsunamis so we could learn even more about the science of them in the near future.