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Why aren't tsunamis seen at sea or from the air?

In the deep ocean, tsunami wave amplitude is usually less than 1 m (3.3 feet).  The crests of tsunami waves may be more than a hundred kilometers or more away from each other.  Therefore, passengers on boats at sea, far away from shore where the water is deep, will not feel nor see the tsunami waves as they pass by underneath at high speeds.  The tsunami may be perceived as nothing more than a gentle rise and fall of the sea surface.

The Great Sanriku tsunami, which struck Honshu, Japan, on June 15, 1896, was completely undetected by fishermen twenty miles out to sea.  The deep-water height of this tsunami was only about 40 centimeters when it passed them and yet, when it arrived on the shore, it had transformed into huge waves that killed 28,000 people, destroyed the port of Sanriku and villages along 275 km of coastline.  For the same reason of low amplitude and very long periods in the deep ocean, tsunami waves cannot be seen nor detected from the air.   From the sky, tsunami waves cannot be distinguished from ordinary ocean waves.

 

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Regional Disaster Information Center (Latin America & the Caribbean)


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TsunamiTeacher

DVD copies for PC and Macintosh computers are available free of charge from the ITIC, Hawaii (itic.tsunami@noaa.gov).

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