You may have guessed what I am referring to and that is the Tsunami. That is its Japanese name. It is anything but serene. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a Tsunami website that defines Tsunamis as “ocean waves produced by earthquakes or underwater landslides.” It goes on to say “The word is made up of two Japanese words “tsu” meaning harbor and “nami” meaning wave because of the devastating effects these waves have on low-lying Japanese coastal communities. Tsunamis are often incorrectly referred to as tidal waves, but a tsunami is actually a series of waves that can travel at speeds averaging 450 (and up to 600) miles per hour in the open ocean.” Shallow focus earthquakes under 30 km deep with a Richter scale reading of above 7.0 are usually the cause of massive tsunamis.
The most memorable tsunamis of recent history are the big one on December 26,2004 caused by an undersea megathrust earthquake in the Indian Ocean that devastated the coasts of just about every landmass bordering the Indian Ocean and the more recent March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that was the worst ever to hit Japan and caused serious damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant releasing deadly radiation.
Let’s start with the December 26,2004 tsunami. I was not in that part of the world when it occurred, but I found out about it while traveling. My wife and I were flying to Rochester, New York to attend my father-in-law’s funeral. We watched updates on the TV monitors at the airports and saw what at the time was unbelievable. The horrific devastation of landmasses along with the death of 230,000 people in fourteen countries. Indonesia was the hardest country hit followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. The quake’s magnitude was recorded at 9.1-9.3 making it the third largest earthquake ever recorded. It lasted from 8.3 to 10 minutes. Coastal communities were overrun by waves up to 100 feet (30 meters) high. This Youtube video shows the massive waves as they roared in.
The more recent March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was the strongest earthquake ever measured in Japan. A report issued by the Japanese National Police Agency on February 10, 2014 confirmed 15,884 deaths, 6,147 people injured, and 2,636 people still missing and that is across 20 prefectures. As for property damage 127,290 buildings totally collapsed, 272,788 buildings were categorized as “half collapsed,”and 747,989 buildings were partially damaged. About 4.5 million homes in northeast Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million had no water. Quoting Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan “in the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.” The tsunami also caused nuclear accidents, primarily the 7 meltdowns in the three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant complex and the associated evacuation zones affecting hundreds of thousands residents. At least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas buildup in their outer containment buildings because of cooling system failure.
Debris, some of which is radioactive, has been coming across the Pacific Ocean to wash up on the West Coast of the United States. The dock above is the largest piece of floating debris found.
Billions of dollars in damage and a death-toll of 425,000 people have been attributed to tsunamis since 1850. Tsunami waves are unlike normal sea waves because they have a longer wavelength and usually present as a series of waves. The waves spread out like the ripples when you drop a rock in a body of water. Here is a simulation of what a tsunami caused by an earthquake looks like.
The tsunami warning system has provided warnings when a tsunami forms in the Pacific Basin since 1946, but only by using seismometers and coastal tide gauges which allow accurate predictions of the impact of a tsunami on a particular coastal location. The latest deep ocean tsunami detection system responds to a tsunami that is generated by seismic activity. It is called the DART mooring system. Check out the animation that you can actually interact with.
The West Coast of the United States is vulnerable to potential tsunamis. Some of the most important rules for those living near the ocean or visiting the coast are to never turn your back on the ocean, if a tsunami warning siren goes off leave the beach immediately, if you see the tide recede much farther out to sea than normal (this happens before the tsunami moves in) get off the beach (many have been killed by walking the beach out toward the ocean to pick up sea shells, etc. and drown when the tsunami wave comes in). If you want to keep up with when and where tsunamis have occurred you can use the NOAA/NWS National Tsunami Warning Center website.
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