A tsunami is a series of waves created when a body of water, such as an ocean, is rapidly displaced. Earthquakes, mass movements above or below water, volcanic eruptions and other underwater explosions, landslides, large meteorite impacts and testing with nuclear weapons at sea all have the potential to generate a tsunami. The effects of a tsunami can range from unnoticeable to devastating. The term tsunami comes from Japanese meaning harbor ("tsu") and wave ("nami"). Although in Japanese tsunami is used for both the singular and plural, in English tsunamis is often used as the plural. The term was created by fishermen who returned to port to find the area surrounding their harbor devastated, although they had not been aware of any wave in the open water. Tsunami are common throughout Japanese history; approximately 195 events in Japan have been recorded.
A tsunami has a much smaller 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 passing "hump" in the ocean. Tsunami have been historically referred to as tidal waves because as they approach land, they take on the characteristics of a violent onrushing tide rather than the sort of cresting waves that are formed by wind action upon the ocean (with which people are more familiar). Since they are not actually related to tides the term is considered misleading and its usage is discouraged by oceanographers.
A tsunami can be generated when the plate boundaries abruptly deform and vertically displace the overlying water. Such large vertical movements of the Earth’s crust can occur at plate boundaries. Subduction earthquakes are particularly effective in generating tsunami. Also, one tsunami in the 1940's in Hilo, Hawaii, was actually caused by an earthquake on one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. That earthquake was 7.8 on the Richter Scale. Tsunami are formed as the displaced water mass moves under the influence of gravity and radiates across the ocean like ripples on a pond.
In the 1950s it was discovered by that larger tsunami than previously believed possible could be caused by landslides, explosive volcanic action, and impact events when they contact water. These phenomena rapidly displace large volumes of water, as energy from falling debris or expansion is transferred to the water into which the debris falls. Tsunami caused by these mechanisms, unlike the ocean-wide tsunami caused by some earthquakes, generally dissipate quickly and rarely affect coastlines distant from the source due to the small area of sea affected. These events can give rise to much larger local shock waves (solitons), such as the landslide at the head of Lituya Bay which produced a water wave estimated at 50 – 150 m and reached 524 m up local mountains. However, an extremely large landslide could generate a “megatsunami” that might have ocean-wide impacts.
The geological record tells us that there have been massive tsunami in Earth's past.
Signs of an approaching tsunami
There is often no advance warning of an approaching tsunami. However, since earthquakes are often a cause of tsunami, an earthquake felt near a body of water may be considered an indication that a tsunami will shortly follow.
When the first part of a tsunami to reach land is a trough rather than a crest of the wave, the water along the shoreline may recede dramatically, exposing areas that are normally always submerged. This can serve as an advance warning of the approaching crest of the tsunami, although the warning arrives only a very short time before the crest, which typically arrives seconds to minutes later. In the 2004 tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean the sea receding was not reported on the African coast or any other western coasts it hit, when the tsunami approached from the east.