A tsunami is a very long-wavelength wave of water that is generated by sudden displacement of the seafloor or disruption of any body of standing water. Tsunami are sometimes called “seismic sea waves”, although they can be generated by mechanisms other than earthquakes.
Tsunami have also been called “tidal waves”, but this term should not be used because they are not in any way related to the tides of the Earth. Because tsunami occur suddenly, often without warning, they are extremely dangerous to coastal communities.
Tsunamis can be associated with earthquakes. Sometimes a large earthquake beneath the ocean floor will produce a tsunami, which is a series of large waves.
The rate at which a wave loses its energy is inversely related to its wavelength. Since a tsunami has a very large wavelength, it will lose little energy as it propagates. Thus, in very deep water, a tsunami will travel at high speeds with little loss of energy.
As a tsunami leaves the deep water of the open sea and arrives at the shallow waters near the coast, it undergoes a transformation. Since the velocity of the tsunami is also related to the water depth, as the depth of the water decreases, the velocity of the tsunami decreases. The change of total energy of the tsunami, however, remains constant.
Furthermore, the period of the wave remains the same, and thus more water is forced between the wave crests causing the height of the wave to increase. Because of this “shoaling” effect, a tsunami that was imperceptible in deep water may grow to have wave heights of several meters or more.
The main damage from tsunami comes from the destructive nature of the waves themselves. Secondary effects include the debris acting as projectiles which then run into other objects, erosion that can undermine the foundations of structures built along coastlines, and fires that result from disruption of gas and electrical lines. Tertiary effects include loss of crops and water and electrical systems which can lead to famine and disease.
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