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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog


Japanese 8.9 earthquake March 10, 2011 (copyright NOAA 2011)

Tsunamis (pronounced soo-NAH-mee) is a Japanese word meaning “harbor wave”. They can be a single wave but more likely a series of waves. When they land onshore they are truly killer waves.

Tsunamis are triggered by submarine earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions and even meteorite impacts. In the open ocean the waves are small, and they can travel thousands of miles at speeds of 603 miles per hour or as fast as a jet plane can fly.

When a tsunami approaches a shoreline the speed of the waves can slow down to 99 miles per hour. The shallow coastline causes the water beneath the wave to pile up. The roiling waves rise higher and higher. Within seconds, a two-foot wave at sea can become a 30-foot wave onshore.

Usually there are several waves in a row called a wave train. The third or fourth is often the highest but sometimes it’s the eighth or ninth wave. A tsunami can last for more than 8 hours.

Tsunamis are not related to weather nor climate change. They have been incorrectly called tidal waves; these waves are unrelated to tides.

Tsunamis are not seasonal, and can occur at any time of year in any ocean. They can occur on sunny days or in the middle of the night. There are an average of five or six tsunamis worldwide every year.

Tsunamis are one of nature’s most unpredictable phenomena’s. More people have been killed by tsunamis in Hawaii than by hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activities combined.

In fact, there have been some treacherous tsunamis over the past 125 years.

For example, on August 27, 1883 a viscous volcanic eruption annihilated the tiny Indonesian island of Krakatau. The sonic boom from the explosion was heard more than eighteen hundred and sixty miles away. This potent eruption unleashed a tsunami with waves in excess of 131 feet high. At least 36,000 people perished.

On July 10, 1958 an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale created an enormous landslide near Lituya Bay, Alaska. An entire slope of earth and rocks plunged into the bay, displacing a massive amount of seawater that raced up the opposite valley wall as high as 1,722 feet. It obliterated the entire forest in its path. Within four minutes, a 102-foot-high wave surged 7 miles to the mouth of the bay and then sucked fishing boats, building and people out to sea.

The third largest earthquake ever recorded at 9.2 on the Richter scale struck Alaska on March 27, 1964. It triggered a tsunami that killed at least 130 people some as far away as Crescent City, California. Sixteen hours later waves reached the Antarctica.

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded took place in southern Chile on May 22, 1960. It measured an astounding 9.5 on the Richter scale. It released ten times more energy than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. Eighty-two foot waves smashed into central Chile. Sixteen hours later a tsunami struck Hawaii killing 61 people, it moved east lambasting Japan and killing 132 people and then onto the Philippines where 32 people died.

The second largest earthquake this century measured 9.3 on the Richter scale, it occurred offshore Sumatra on December 26, 2004. The ensuing tsunami and its wave train killed at least 200,000 people in Asia and east Africa.

On March 10, 2011 an earthquake measuring 8.9 – the biggest in modern Japanese history – slammed the island nation’s east coast unleashing a 23-foot tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland and prompting a nuclear emergency from five stations.

Wave trains set off around the globe and Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and the westcoast’s of North and South America all felt the devastating effects.

Along the U.S. western coast on Friday (March 11) businesses were flooded, boats smashed at harbors and one man from Crescent City, Calif. was swept to his death. Damages will run into the millions along the U.S. mainland alone.

Seven foot waves crashed into the big island of Hawaii and Maui causing relatively minor but widespread damage.

Adding to the panic in Japan and worldwide apprehension, the damaged core of  Tokyo Electric Co, or TEPCO’s, Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 nuclear reactor plant near Sendai has melted-down. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-complex was violently rocked by a 6.4-magnitude aftershock early Saturday morning (March 12) followed by an explosion which reportedly has not damage the containment structure surrounding the reactor.

On Sunday (March 13) TEPCO released air containing radioactive materials for more than two hours, injecting water at No. 3 nuclear reactor container vessel to reduce pressure and temperature in which appears to be in the process of melting down. Critical core cooling systems failed at both reactors and Japanese officials are faced with serious cooling problems at three more reactors.

Japan’s nuclear crisis of radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks and even months.

A third reactor appears (March 14) to be in the process of partially melting-down as technicians are battling to stabilize it as the uranium fuel rods became exposed after the pump stopped and fuel ran out. An explosion was heard and reported from the third nuclear reactor.

As of March 15 radiation is spewing from damaged reactors at a crippled nuclear power plant in tsunami-ravaged northeastern Japan in a dramatic escalation of the 4-day-old catastrophe. The prime minister has warned residents to stay inside or risk getting radiation sickness.

A fire is burning in number 4 reactor and officials are concern about the reactors in Units 5 and 6 as their temperatures are slightly elevated. Units 5 and 6 were loaded with nuclear fuel but not producing when Friday’s earthquake and tsunami struck.

As of March 16, the European Union’s energy chief, Guenther Oettinger, told the European Parliament that the plant was “effectively out of control” after breakdowns in the facility’s cooling system.

It now appears that four of the six nuclear units are out of control and nuclear molten magma is feeding upon itself at temperatures in excess of 4,500 degrees C.

On March 25, 2011 radiation levels were measured at 10,000 times the acceptable levels from the nuclear facility and radiation levels have been detected 18 miles off the coastline in the Pacific Ocean. The westcoast North American salmon will be exposed to nuclear fall-out. This like the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico has become a global ecological disaster. Humans are leaving deep, toxic footprints across the globe and this is unacceptable.

On March 31, 2011 four of the six nuclear units were declared inoperable and will eventually be decommissioned. In the meantime radiation is leaking into soil, freshwater, the Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere and levels of radiation have been detected around the globe. Enough is enough.

Tree ring patterns from western redcedars growing along coastal Washington clearly showed that an earthquake occurred in January 1770. It measured between 9 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. When compared to Japanese tsunami records it was discerned to have taken place on January 26, 1770; and its exact time was pinpointed 10 hours before the unrelenting wave train pummeled the Japanese coastline.

Any sudden increase or decrease in the level of the ocean should be immediately interpreted as an imminent signal of a tsunami. Move to higher ground as quickly as possible. Do not return to low lying areas for at least 10 hours.

The occurrence of tsunamis is closely monitored in the Pacific from Hawaii, along the West Coast and Alaska, and with systems in Chile and Japan.

Small electronic devices placed on the Indian and Pacific Ocean floors’ relay seismic activity to buoys on the surface, which in turn communicate with a constellation of satellites orbiting Earth. This deep ocean assessment and reporting of tsunamis can be viewed at

Preparing people for tsunamis is of paramount importance yet its fraught with difficulties. A few false alarms and people may not believe or heed official warnings.

Informing all people regularly, not just coastal communities, is very important, because many people who live inland occasionally visit the coast on holidays.

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Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster and biologist. His upcoming book is “Shepherding the Sea: The Race to Save Our Oceans.”

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2014. All rights reserved.


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