Stop Thinking of a Tsunami as a Wave

By: Skip Conover | Posted: 07th April 2011

People are largely ignorant about the power of a tsunami, so it's time to review once again what a tsunami is. It is not a traditional sea wave. You know, we're talking about those swells we can body or board surf on, and that go right by us at the beach. Not at all!

A tsunami is first and foremost an energy wave transferred through the sea at the speed of a jumbo jet. Remember that if you jump off a 150-foot tall bridge, when you hit the water it is like hitting concrete. Why? Because water doesn't change its shape quickly enough to accommodate the velocity of the falling body—and that body is falling at less than 100 miles per hour.

A tsunami is traveling at about 500 miles per hour. To understand the phenomenon, imagine you have a brick on a table in front of you. Put your left hand palm inward on the left side of the brick. Now hit the brick firmly with your right hand. You will see that the energy of your right hand slap is immediately transferred to your left hand.

Now think of the Pacific Ocean as a big brick and an 9.0 earthquake as that hand slap. The energy passes across that "brick" at nearly the speed of sound, approximately 500 miles per hour. Sailors at sea don't even notice it, because it is passing through the entire volume of the water beneath them. As that energy approaches shore it focuses, and raises the level of the sea itself, sometimes hundreds of feet.

Still another way to think of it is to use a cake pan and fill it with water to the brim. Now tip it ever so slightly and the water pours out, not in a wave but a rush. That is what happens when a major earthquake moves seawater. This is why tsunamis are sometimes referred to as tidal waves. Because they seem more like a tide, raising a number of feet in a few minutes rather than the customary six hours. The speed of the water rise makes a difference.

Which all brings me around to the Oregon and California men, who thought it would be fun to go out and photograph or surf the tsunami. The photographer in Oregon is now a candidate for the Darwin Award because he eliminated himself from the gene pool in such an extraordinarily foolish manner that he improved the chance of the long-term survival of the species. He was apparently the only American to die on America's coast from Japan's worst earthquake in over a century.

CNN gave us video of a California man, who thought it would be exciting to surf the tsunami. He's not a Darwin Award candidate this time, because the tsunami was not 100 feet high. But if he does that again, he might well achieve the goal.

What is the one and only thing you should do if you are in the vicinity of a potential tsunami strike? Run!


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Skip Conover is an International Executive, Author, and Artist. Skip lived in Japan for 8 years. He has written a novel, a published current affairs book, and a published journal. He turned his long time interest in Jungian Archetype into the Archetype in Action Organization.
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Tags: six hours, pacific ocean, miles per hour, brim, sailors, slap, swells, tidal waves, seawater, cake pan, mdash