We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Tsunami?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jun 04, 2024
Our promise to you
All Things Nature is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At All Things Nature, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

Tsunami (pronounced soo-nahm'-ee) is Japanese for "harbor wave" but is actually a series of waves usually generated in the deep ocean, causing massive amounts of damage upon landfall.

The most common cause of tsunamis is a 7.5+ magnitude earthquake under the seabed floor. Often these quakes occur at boundary lines where tectonic or continental plates meet. When the plates push against each other, pressure builds over time until a critical point is reached. The plates slip and thrust past each other lifting or dropping the seabed floor. Gravity forces the water column above to regain its equilibrium. In the process the displaced water rushes outward in a 360-degree circular pattern forming a series of radiating waves like enormous "ripples."

Though a tsunami in open ocean rarely reaches higher than a few feet (1+ meter) it is a very deep wave packing lots of power, making it significantly different from surface disturbances, like true ripples or wind-generated waves. It also differs in length from regular surface waves. A tsunami crest can be 620 miles long (1000 kilometers), but because the amplitude or height is minimal it usually cannot be detected in open ocean, even if passes beneath your boat! As it propagates outwards it can travel as fast as a passenger jet at 450 - 600 mph (724 - 965 kph) racing towards shores hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

As it approaches shore and depth decreases the tsunami will slow but the power it contains continues to roll forward increasing amplitude or height. Waves can rise 100 feet (30 meters) but more often its arrival is much more subtle. The ocean may draw back from the shore so far that it disappears from view before it starts flowing back in, not as a wave at first but more like a bathtub quickly rising. Within seconds the water level can rise 30, 60, even 100 feet (up to 30 meters) above sea level, becoming a rushing wall of water moving up to 40 mph (64 kph) overtaking and lifting everything in its path. The force can easily crush homes or other structures, carry off vehicles, uproot trees and flood low-laying coastal areas up to 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) inland.

The "ripples" that flow out from the epicenter of the disturbance hit the shore one by one with anywhere from 5 to 90 minutes between crests. People often assume once the water from the first wave withdraws the danger has passed and they will reenter the danger zone, only to have another wave hit. Unfortunately the first crest to make shore is usually not the most destructive.

Earthquakes are the most common cause of tsunamis, but underwater volcanoes, landslides or even an asteroid hitting a body of water can cause a tsunami by displacing a large amount of water.

A coalition of more than two dozen countries belongs to the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System (TWS). The group predicts where tsunamis will strike based on information gathered from tidal charts, seismic sensors, historical data, and oceanic buoys anchored to instruments that take pressure measurements at the sea floor. If TWS data indicates a tsunami might have been generated, potentially affected areas are immediately notified. Local authorities then order evacuations or other necessary measures.

One of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history occurred on December 26, 2004 in an area unprotected by TWS. The surrounding countries were not members of TWS and so no buoys were anchored in the Indian Ocean when a magnitude 9.0 quake struck. The earthquate was centered 100 miles (161 km) off the coast of Sumatra, spawning a series of waves that devastated southeast Asia, killing many more than two hundred thousand people. The tragedy prompted India to commit to installing a warning system.

Tsunamis are often called 'tidal' or 'seismic waves' but these terms are misnomers. Other processes form tidal waves and not all tsunamis are initiated by seismic activity, as in the case of volcanic eruptions or landslides. A "rogue wave" is also a different phenomenon, little understood. This is a huge wave that forms out at sea, sometimes in calm waters. A rogue wave can reach 50 - 100 feet (15 - 30 meters) and sink a large ship in seconds, but these waves do not reach shore.

Tsunamis they can occur at any time of the day, in any season, and in any weather. If an earthquake strikes just offshore there may not be time for TWS to warn local populations. Therefore if you live within 1 mile (1.6 km) of a coastal area that is less than 25 feet (7.6 m) above sea level, it is recommended that when you feel a sizeable earthquake, once it has passed, you should immediately move inland until the location of the epicenter is known.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By comfyshoes — On Mar 21, 2011

@Latte31 -I read that the tsunami aid for the Indian Ocean tsunami was about fifteen billion dollars worldwide.

I also hope that people donate to the Japanese tsunami like they did with the tsunami in Indonesia. It is so sad how a natural disaster like this can paralyze a country like that. Many people are trying to leave the country of Japan but are having trouble.

By latte31 — On Mar 19, 2011

@Subway11 - I cannot even imagine how these people feel because the devastation was so sudden like that. I imagine that they must have been in shock much like how the Japanese people are feeling today with their earthquake and tsunami.

By subway11 — On Mar 17, 2011

@BrickBack - Wow I didn’t know that. I have seen the tsunami photos and they were really scary. It is hard to imagine seeing waves that are 100 feet high like that.

The thing that is really scary is that you don’t get warnings for earthquakes and tsunamis usually follow really strong earthquakes. I really don’t know how much time you actually have to prepare for a tsunami.

I know that at least when there is a hurricane you get plenty of warning. Usually a hurricane is forecasted about a week in advance and when the hurricane conditions are possible in the area it is labeled with a hurricane watch, but if the hurricane is going to hit land then the hurricane watch is upgraded to a warning and all nonessential businesses shut down.

I know that there are some tsunami warnings out there but there is usually not much as much time to prepare.

By BrickBack — On Mar 16, 2011

I really never even heard of a tsunami until the devastating tsunami of 2004 hit in Indonesia. The tsunami pictures were incredible and I could not believe that over two hundred thousand people died.

I read that the tsunami warning actually failed because two of the buoys were damaged due to vandalism. That is just incredible.

All Things Nature, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

All Things Nature, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.