A tsunami is a series of very long ocean waves created when a large body of water is displaced. A tsunami can hit shore with devastating impact, as one did on Dec. 26, 2004, when a series of waves pounded the coastlines of Southeast Asia, levelling whole villages and killing around 200,000 people.
Tsunami (pronounced soo-NAH-mee) comes from a Japanese word that means "harbour wave." It's often incorrectly called a tidal wave, which is a periodic movement of water produced by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Tsunamis are not connected with the weather or tides.
How are tsunamis created?
Tsunamis can be generated by any disturbance that displaces a large amount of water, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, meteorites or landslides into the water or below its surface.
The tsunamis that hit the shorelines of 11 countries on Dec. 26, 2004, were triggered by a megathrust earthquake. Megathrust earthquakes are a potentially very destructive type caused when a tectonic plate in the Earth's crust slips under another one.
In this case, a 1,000-kilometre section of the India plate moved sideways and downward under the Burma plate just off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, according to the U.S. government's Earthquake Hazards Program. The resulting earthquake measured a magnitude of 9, making it the most powerful tremor in 40 years.
The collision caused the seabed under the Indian Ocean to rise by as much as 10 metres and possibly even 30.
The vertical movement of the ocean floor triggered the tsunamis.
Major tsunami events
March 11, 2011: A tsunami sweeps into Japan after the biggest earthquake to hit the country since record keeping began in the late 1800s, and triggers tsunami watches for major stretches of the Pacific, including the west coasts of South America, the United States and Canada. The 9.0 magnitude quake — just off the northeast coast — killed more than 15,850 people in Japan. An additional 3,203 were unaccounted for and 452,000 were displaced from their homes. A year later, more than 80,000 were still unable to return home due to radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor damaged by the quake and tsunami.
Feb. 27, 2010: Tsunami warnings are issued over a wide area — including South America, Hawaii, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia and many Pacific islands — after an 8.8-magnitude quake strikes Chile.
Sept. 29, 2009: Tsunami waves spawned by a powerful earthquake hit two South Pacific island chains, in American Samoa and Somoa, killing dozens.
July 17, 2006: An earthquake of 7.7 intensity deep under the Indian Ocean west of Indonesia's Java Island spawns a two-metre tsunami that hammers the island's west coast beach resort area and kills over 300 people.
Dec. 26, 2004: A 9.0-magnitude earthquake centred off the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggers tsunamis that pound the shorelines of nine countries, killing 230,000 people.
July 17, 1998: A tsunami triggered by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake offshore triggers a tsunami that hits Papua, New Guinea. Waves as high as 12 metres kill about 3,000 people and destroy whole villages.
June 3, 1994: Earthquakes cause a series of waves more than 60 metres high that slam into Eastern Java and Indonesia, killing 200 people.
July 12, 1993: An underwater earthquake off the coast of Hokkaido in Japan generates five-metre-high waves that leave 202 dead.
Aug. 17, 1976: Tsunamis generated by an earthquake near Mindanao, Philippines, kill 8,000.
March 27, 1964: The largest earthquake of the 20th century in the northern hemisphere, with a magnitude of 8.4., strikes off Alaska's shore. It spurs tsunami waves as high as six metres, which kill more than 120 people and cause more than $106 million US in damages.
March 3, 1933: An earthquake-generated tsunami strikes Sanriku, Japan. It kills nearly 3,000 people, destroys 9,000 houses and sinks about 3,000 ships.
Nov. 18, 1929: A magnitude 7.2 earthquake occurs on the Grand Banks and is felt as far away as Ottawa. The resulting tsunami kills 28 people on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula.
June 15, 1896: A tsunami with waves up to 30 metres high pounds the east coast of Japan around Yoshihimama, leaving about 27,000 dead.
Aug. 27, 1883: A volcanic eruption near Krakatoa, Indonesia, triggers tsunamis that kill about 36,000.
How big do tsunamis get?
In the deep ocean, tsunamis might have wavelengths as long as several hundred kilometres and reach speeds of up to 720 kilometres per hour. Yet the waves may be less than a metre tall, letting them pass unnoticed beneath ships at sea.
When these waves enter the shallower water approaching shore, their speeds drop and their heights increase dramatically. They tend to get bigger if they roll over gentling sloping shores and underwater ridges, towering as high as 30 metres.
The highest recorded tsunami occurred in Lituya Bay, Alaska, on July 9, 1958. The wave, triggered by a landslide in a narrow bay, reached a height of 518 metres by the time it hit the opposite slope.
When tsunamis slam into shore, they can flood up to two kilometres inland, sweeping people out to sea, flattening buildings and toppling trees.
Between five minutes and an hour can pass between a tsunami's waves, amplifying its destruction. For example, after an initial tsunami wave swept over Thai resorts in December 2004, people flocked onto the beaches to help the injured. Then a second wave struck and claimed even more victims.
What was the most destructive tsunami?
The most devastating recorded tsunami demolished parts of the East Indies on Aug. 27, 1883, after the volcano Krakatoa exploded. More than 36,000 people died because of the waves, which reached heights of 30 metres and speeds of 724 km/h.
Is there any warning?
The killer waves usually strike with little warning. When an earthquake rumbled off the coast of Hokkaido in Japan in July of 1993, the resulting tsunami hit just three to five minutes later, killing 202 people who were trying to flee for higher ground.
Often a sharp swell gives the first sign as a series of tsunami waves approach the coastline. Then the water suddenly rushes outward, often exposing offshore areas for a few minutes. Then the first massive wave hits. Usually, the third to eighth waves are the biggest.
About 80 per cent of all tsunamis occur in the Pacific and many cities around the ocean — mostly in Japan, but also in Hawaii — have warning systems and evacuation procedures for serious tsunamis.
One of the best ways to predict tsunamis is to monitor earthquakes, which set off most of the waves. Seismograph networks, wave gauges (such as those operated by international Tsunami Warning System) and satellite measurements of sea level changes can help warn of tsunamis.
How often do they occur?
There are an average of two tsunamis each year that cause damage somewhere in the world. About every 15 years, a destructive, Pacific-wide tsunami occurs, according to the U.S. government's West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.
Can tsunamis hit Canada?
They have. On March 27, 1964, a large earthquake in Alaska triggered a tsunami that caused damage all the way to California. It pounded Vancouver Island shorelines, causing several million dollars of destruction to the community of Port Alberni. A warning system allowed thousands of people to flee their homes, so no lives were lost.
After a massive quake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, the north and central B.C. coast, along with the west coast of Vancouver Island from Cape Scott to Port Renfrew, were expected to receive waves of about 50 centimetres. No damage was done by the waves that did reach Canada's shoreline.
What do you do to survive a tsunami?
If you are near the ocean and feel a large earthquake, you should go inland or to higher ground immediately. If a tsunami were to be generated close to British Columbia, waves could reach shore within a few minutes — not enough time for officials to issue a warning.
On land, know the community's suggested evacuation routes to safe areas.
Prepare an emergency supplies kit for your home, car and work.
Stay away from the coast because waves can roll in for hours.
Getting to higher ground is the best bet. Otherwise, climb to an upper floor or roof. As a last resort, climb a tree.
If you are on a boat, you should leave the harbour for open water, where tsunami effects aren't as damaging.
If you're swept up in the waves, climb onto something that floats. On land, know the community's suggested evacuation routes to safe areas. Prepare an emergency supplies kit for your home, car and work.
Stay away from the coast because waves can roll in for hours.
How can low-lying regions protect themselves?
Asian countries have devised some low-tech ways to survive natural disasters such as cyclones. Unlike tsunamis, cyclones often come with advance notice.
In Bangladesh, storm shelters are built on stilts, and emergency preparedness volunteers have radios and megaphones to warn of cyclones.
In the Philippines and in India, car tires are placed on top of huts as anchors.
In southern India, a series of loosely packed boulders form structures with sloping surfaces that can channel water into the sea.
Mangrove forests are planted in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and southern India to help filter wind and water during cyclones.