Shop Windows to the Universe

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith tells the story of our storm warning system. See our online store book collection.

When Nature Strikes: Tsunamis

A tsunami (pronounced soo-NAH-mee) is a series of waves, generated in a body of water by a disturbance such as an earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, or meteorite impact. Tsunamis can devastate coastlines, causing major property damage and loss of life.

A tsunami in the open ocean can have a wavelength of more than 100 km. Tsunami waves travel very quickly--up to 700 kilometers per hour--and although they have huge wavelengths, they are typically less than a meter high while they are traveling through the open ocean. As a tsunami travels into the shallower water near the coast, it changes dramatically. Its height increases and its wavelength decreases as it nears shore, so although a tsunami is often imperceptible at sea, it may grow to be several meters or more in height near the coast and have a tremendous amount of energy. When it finally reaches the coast, a tsunami may appear as a rapidly rising or falling tide or a series of waves with a maximum height of up to 30 meters above the level of the sea. The danger from a tsunami can last for several hours after the arrival of the first wave. 

Coasts affected by a tsunami will be severely eroded, and a tsunami can cause flooding hundreds of meters inland. The water moves with such force that it is capable of crushing homes and other buildings. This power was demonstrated recently when in 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan generated tsunami waves that reached heights of more than 130 ft as they reached land. The tsunami completely destroyed eight villages and caused severe damage in many others, killed more than 15,000 people, and caused a major nuclear accident as waves damaged a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Because of the threat tsunami pose to populations living near the sea, scientists like Anne Trehu and Dan Cox at Oregon State University are now studying ways of making structures like harbors and buildings better able to resist the effects of tsunami waves, as well as ways of identifying the earliest warning signs of a tsunami and alerting people who are at risk so they can seek shelter. Although no one can predict when or where the earthquakes that cause tsunami will occur, this research will hopefully lessen their impact on coastal communities.

 "When Nature Strikes" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

When Nature Strikes: Tsunami Classroom Activity

Last modified April 28, 2016 by Jennifer Bergman.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, as well as books on science education!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

What Is an Earthquake?

The expression "on solid ground" is often used to describe something as stable. But sometimes the solid ground underfoot is not stable. It moves as Earth's tectonic plates move. Sometimes it moves gradually....more

Meteors

Meteors are streaks of light, usually lasting just a few seconds, which people occasionally see in the night sky. They are sometimes called "shooting stars" or "falling stars", though they are not stars...more

Ten Tsunami Safety Facts

1. Tsunamis that strike coastal locations in the Pacific Ocean Basin are almost always caused by earthquakes. These earthquakes might occur far away or near where you live. 2. Some tsunamis can be very...more

Altocumulus

Altocumulus clouds (weather symbol - Ac), are made primarily of liquid water and have a thickness of 1 km. They are part of the Middle Cloud group (2000-7000m up). They are grayish-white with one part...more

Altostratus

Altostratus clouds (weather symbol - As) consist of water and some ice crystals. They belong to the Middle Cloud group (2000-7000m up). An altostratus cloud usually covers the whole sky and has a gray...more

Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus clouds (weather symbol - Cc) are composed primarily of ice crystals and belong to the High Cloud group (5000-13000m). They are small rounded puffs that usually appear in long rows. Cirrocumulus...more

Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus (weather symbol - Cs) clouds consist almost entirely of ice crystals and belong to the High Cloud (5000-13000m) group. They are sheetlike thin clouds that usually cover the entire sky. The...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA