Tsunami is a Japanese word with the English translation, "harbor wave." A tsunami (pronounced tsoo-nah-mee) is a wave train, or series of waves, generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water column. Earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, explosions, and even the impact of cosmic bodies, such as meteorites, can generate tsunamis. Tsunamis can savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life.
In the past, tsunamis have sometimes been referred to as tidal waves by the general public, and as seismic sea waves by the scientific community. The term "tidal wave" is a misnomer; although a tsunami's impact upon a coastline is dependent upon the tidal level at the time a tsunami strikes. But tsunamis are unrelated to the tides. Tides result from the imbalanced, extraterrestrial, gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and planets. The term "seismic sea wave" is also misleading. "Seismic" implies an earthquake-related generation mechanism, but a tsunami can also be caused by a non-seismic event, such as a landslide or meteorite impact.
Tsunamis are also unlike wind-generated waves, which many of us may have observed on a local lake or at a coastal beach, in that they are characterized as shallow-water waves, with long periods and wave lengths. The wind-generated swell one sees at a California beach, for example, spawned by a storm out in the Pacific and rhythmically rolling in, one wave after another, might have a period of about 10 seconds and a wave length of 150 m. A tsunami, on the other hand, can have a wave length in excess of 100 km and period on the order of one hour.
As a result of their long wave lengths, tsunamis behave as shallow-water waves. A wave becomes a shallow-water wave when the ratio between the water depth and its wave length gets very small. Shallow-water waves move at a speed that is equal to the square root of the product of the acceleration of gravity (9.8 m/s/s) and the water depth - let's see what this implies: In the Pacific Ocean, where the typical water depth is about 4000 m, a tsunami travels at about 200 m/s, or over 700 km/hr. Because the rate at which a wave loses its energy is inversely related to its wave length, tsunamis not only propagate at high speeds, they can also travel great, transoceanic distances with limited energy losses.
Tsunamis can be generated when the sea floor abruptly deforms and vertically displaces the overlying water. Tectonic earthquakes are a particular kind of earthquake that are associated with the earth's crustal deformation. When these earthquakes occur beneath the sea, the water above the deformed area is displaced from its equilibrium position. Waves are formed as the displaced water mass, which acts under the influence of gravity, attempts to regain its equilibrium. When large areas of the sea floor elevate or subside, a tsunami can be created.
Large vertical movements of the earth's crust can occur at plate boundaries. Plates interact along these boundaries called faults. Around the margins of the Pacific Ocean, for example, denser oceanic plates slip under continental plates in a process known as subduction. Subduction earthquakes are particularly effective in generating tsunamis.
As a tsunami leaves the deep water of the open ocean and travels into the shallower water near the coast, it transforms. A tsunami travels at a speed that is related to the water depth - hence, as the water depth decreases, the tsunami slows. The tsunami's energy flux, which is dependent on both its wave speed and wave height, remains nearly constant. Consequently, as the tsunami's speed diminishes as it travels into shallower water, its height grows. Because of this shoaling effect, a tsunami, imperceptible at sea, may grow to be several meters or more in height near the coast. When it finally reaches the coast, a tsunami may appear as a rapidly rising or falling tide, a series of breaking waves, or even a bore.
Just like other water waves, tsunamis begin to lose energy as they rush onshore. Part of the wave energy is reflected offshore, while the shoreward-propagating wave energy is dissipated through bottom friction and turbulence. Despite these losses, however, tsunamis still reach the coast with tremendous amounts of energy. Tsunamis have great erosional potential, stripping beaches of sand that may have taken years to accumulate and undermining trees and other coastal vegetation. Capable of inundating, or flooding, hundreds of meters inland past the typical high-water level, the fast-moving water associated with the inundating tsunami can crush homes and other coastal structures. Tsunamis may reach a maximum vertical height onshore above sea level, often called a runup height, of 10, 20, and even 30 meters.
Since it is known that the speed of tsunamis varies with water depth, the prediction of tsunami arrival times at coastal locations is possible once the epicenter has been determined. But it is not yet possible to predict the wave height at a specific coastal location. Another indeterminable feature of a tsunami is how many successive waves there will be in the series, although there is rarely only one.