What is a Tsunami?

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Source: NASA, Public Domain

Published: December 23, 2010
Updated: May 7, 2012
Topic Editor: Sidney Draggan
Source: NOAA

The phenomenon we call tsunami is a series of large waves of extremely long wavelength and period usually generated by a violent, impulsive undersea disturbance or activity near the coast or in the ocean. When a sudden displacement of a large volume of water occurs, or if the sea floor is suddenly raised or dropped by an earthquake, big tsunami waves can be formed by forces of gravity. The waves travel out of the area of origin and can be extremely dangerous and damaging when they reach the shore.

Source: NOAA, Public Domain

The word tsunami (pronounced tsoo-nah'-mee) is composed of the Japanese words "tsu" (which means harbor) and "nami" (which means "wave"). Often the term, "seismic or tidal sea wave" is used to describe the same phenomenon, however the terms are misleading, because tsunami waves can be generated by other, non seismic disturbances such as volcanic eruptions or underwater landslides, and have physical characteristics different of tidal waves.

The tsunami waves are completely unrelated to the astronomical tides - which are caused by the extraterrestrial, gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and the planets. Thus, the Japanese word "tsunami", meaning "harbor wave" is the correct, official and all-inclusive term. It has been internationally adopted because it covers all forms of impulsive wave generation.

Updated: 19.08.08 Writer: Tammy Kaitoku


(2012). What is a Tsunami?. Retrieved from http://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/What_is_a_Tsunami?