How does tsunami energy travel across the ocean and how far can tsunamis waves reach?

Once a tsunami has been generated, its energy is distributed throughout the water column, regardless of the ocean's depth.  A tsunami is made up of a series of very long waves.  The waves will travel outward on the surface of the ocean in all directions away from the source area, much like the ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond.   The wavelength of the tsunami waves and their period will depend on the generating mechanism and the dimensions of the source event.   If the tsunami is generated from a large earthquake over a large area, its initial wavelength and period will be greater.   If the tsunami is caused by a local landslide, both its initial wavelength and period will be shorter.  The period of the tsunami waves may range from 5 to 90 minutes.  The wave crests of a tsunami range from a few to a hundred kilometers or more apart as they travel across the ocean.  As the waves approach the coast, their wavelength decreases.

On the open ocean, the wavelength of a tsunami may be as much as two hundred kilometers, many times greater than the ocean depth, which is on the order of a few kilometers.   In the deep ocean, the height of the tsunami from trough to crest may be only a few centimeters to a meter or more - again depending on the generating source.  Tsunami waves in the deep ocean can travel at high speeds for long periods of time for distances of thousands of kilometers and lose very little energy in the process.  The deeper the water, the greater the speed of tsunami waves will be.  

For example, at the deepest ocean depths the tsunami wave speed will be as much as 800 km/h, about the same as that of a jet aircraft.   Since the average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4000 m (14,000 feet) , tsunami wave speed will average about 200 m/s or over 700 km/h (500 mph).   At such high speeds, a tsunami generated in Aleutian Islands may reach Hawaii in less than four and a half hours.  In 1960, great tsunami waves generated in Chile reached Japan, more than 16,800 km away in less than 24 hours, killing hundreds of people.


When tsunamis approach shore, they slow down but grow in size.


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Regional Disaster Information Center (Latin America & the Caribbean)

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Post-Tsunami Survey:
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Tsunami, The Great Waves

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Tsunami Glossary

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Where the First Wave Arrives in Minutes

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