How do submarine landslides, rock falls and underwater slumps generate tsunamis?

Less frequently, tsunami waves can be generated from displacements of water resulting from rock falls, icefalls and sudden submarine landslides or slumps.   Such events may be caused impulsively from the instability and sudden failure of submarine slopes, which are sometimes triggered by the ground motions of a strong earthquake.  For example in the 1980's, earth moving and construction work of an airport runway along the coast of Southern France, triggered an underwater landslide, which generated destructive tsunami waves in the harbor of Thebes.  

Major earthquakes are suspected to cause many underwater landslides, which may contribute significantly to tsunami generation.  For example, many scientists believe that the 1998 tsunami, which killed about 2200 people and destroyed Sissano and nearby villages along the northern coast of Papua-New Guinea, was generated by a large underwater slump of sediments, triggered by an earthquake.  

In general, the energy of tsunami waves generated from landslides or rock falls is rapidly dissipated as they travel away from the source and across the ocean, or within an enclosed or semi-enclosed body of water - such as a lake or a fjord.   However, it should be noted, that the largest tsunami wave ever observed anywhere in the world was caused by a rock fall in Lituya Bay, Alaska on July 10, 1958.  Triggered by an earthquake along the Fairweather fault, an approximately 40 million cubic meter rock fall at the head of the bay generated a wave, which reached the incredible height of 525-meter runup (~1750 feet) on the opposite side of the inlet.  A initial huge solitary wave of about 180 meters (600 feet) raced at about 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph) within the bay debarking trees along its path.  However, the tsunami's energy and height diminished rapidly away from the source area and, once in the open ocean, it was hardly recorded by tide gauge stations.  Only two persons died and three boats were destroyed in Lituya Bay.  In nearby Yakutat Bay, 6.1 meter runup was measured and three persons died.

Click here to read a first person account of the Lituya Bay tsunami (Roberts, 1960 Smithsonian Institution Report).

Shown below is a Lituya Bay time sequence simulation illustrating the formation of the tsunami (red) from the landslide, its propagation across the bay, and then extreme run up the facing shore slope (from left to right).    Numerical modeling can provide many insights on the behavior of tsunamis; in the images, you can see many details, including fingers and eddy trails of water that are formed as part of the initial landslide splash.




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