This is a blog in memory of the Tsunami that struck the North East coast of Japan on 9th March 2011. Though many of the readers might be knowing what a Tsunami is, I felt that this would give more impetus on how a tsunami is generated and what makes it so destructive. The entire text is available in the web, including the pictures from where I have sourced them.

The principal generation mechanism (or cause) of a tsunami is the displacement of a substantial volume of water or perturbation of the sea. This displacement of water is usually attributed to either earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, or more rarely by meteorites and nuclear tests. The waves formed in this way are then sustained by gravity. It is important to note that tides do not play any part in the generation of tsunamis, hence referring to tsunamis as ‘tidal waves’ is inaccurate.

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. More specifically, a tsunami can be generated when thrust faults associated with convergent or destructive plate boundaries move abruptly, resulting in water displacement, owing to the vertical component of movement involved. Movement on normal faults will also cause displacement of the seabed, but the size of the largest of such events is normally too small to give rise to a significant tsunami.

Drawing of tectonic plate boundary before earthquake

Overriding plate bulges under strain, causing tectonic uplift

Plate slips, causing subsidence and releasing energy into water

The energy released produces tsunami waves

Tsunamis have a small amplitude (wave height) offshore, and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometers long), which is why they generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a slight swell usually about 300 millimetres (12 in) above the normal sea surface. They grow in height when they reach shallower water, in a wave shoaling process described below. A tsunami can occur in any tidal state and even at low tide can still inundate coastal areas.

While everyday wind waves have a wavelength (from crest to crest) of about 100 metres (330 ft) and a height of roughly 2 metres (6.6 ft), a tsunami in the deep ocean has a wavelength of about 200 kilometres (120 mi). Such a wave travels at well over 800 kilometres per hour (500 mph), but owing to the enormous wavelength the wave oscillation at any given point takes 20 or 30 minutes to complete a cycle and has an amplitude of only about 1 metre (3.3 ft). This makes tsunamis difficult to detect over deep water. Ships rarely notice their passage.

When the wave enters shallow water, it slows down and its amplitude (height) increases

As the tsunami approaches the coast and the waters become shallow, wave shoaling compresses the wave and its velocity slows below 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph). Its wavelength diminishes to less than 20 kilometres (12 mi) and its amplitude grows enormously, producing a distinctly visible wave. Since the wave still has such a long wavelength, the tsunami may take minutes to reach full height. Except for the very largest tsunamis, the approaching wave does not break (like a surf break), but rather appears like a fast moving tidal bore. Open bays and coastlines adjacent to very deep water may shape the tsunami further into a step-like wave with a steep-breaking front.

The wave further slows and amplifies as it hits land. Only the largest waves crest

When the tsunami’s wave peak reaches the shore, the resulting temporary rise in sea level is termed ‘run up’. Run up is measured in metres above a reference sea level. A large tsunami may feature multiple waves arriving over a period of hours, with significant time between the wave crests. The first wave to reach the shore may not have the highest run up.

About 80% of tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean, but are possible wherever there are large bodies of water, including lakes. They are caused by earthquakes, landslides, volcanic explosions, and bolides.

If the first part of a tsunami to reach land is a trough—called a drawback—rather than a wave crest, the water along the shoreline recedes dramatically, exposing normally submerged areas. A drawback occurs because the water propagates outwards with the trough of the wave at its front. Drawback begins before the wave arrives at an interval equal to half of the wave’s period. Drawback can exceed hundreds of metres, and people unaware of the danger sometimes remain near the shore to satisfy their curiosity or to collect fish from the exposed seabed.

Natural factors such as shoreline tree cover can mitigate tsunami effects. Some locations in the path of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami escaped almost unscathed because trees such as coconut palms and mangroves absorbed the tsunami’s energy. Environmentalists have suggested tree planting along tsunami-prone seacoasts. Trees require years to grow to a useful size, but such plantations could offer a much cheaper and longer-lasting means of tsunami mitigation than artificial barriers.