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A tsunami is a powerful series of waves that result due to an abrupt disturbance, such as an earthquake.

Learn how tsunamis form and grow and discover the devastating effects they can have on people and the environment.

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What Is a Tsunami?

Imagine a giant wall of water growing out of the ocean, big enough to wipe out entire coastal towns and capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people caught in its path. This is the power created by a tsunami, which is a series of waves caused by an earthquake, underwater volcanic eruption, landslide or other abrupt disturbance. Tsunamis are capable of creating massive devastation when they hit land. In this lesson, you will learn how tsunamis are created and the effects they have on people and the environment.The word tsunami comes from the Japanese language.

The prefix ‘tsu’ means ‘harbor’ and the suffix ‘nami’ means ‘wave.’ Therefore, the word literally means ‘harbor wave.’ In March of 2011, Japan was hit by a powerful tsunami that was triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The tsunami killed more than 15,000 people and caused billions of dollars of damage, including damage to several nuclear reactors.

What Causes a Tsunami and How Do They Form?

Tsunamis, like the one that hit Japan, can be caused by any action that creates an abrupt disturbance underwater. This can include a volcanic eruption or landslide, and even a meteorite or nuclear explosion, although these last two examples are rare. The most common cause of a tsunami is an earthquake, which is a sudden shifting of the earth’s crust, which releases energy.

If an earthquake happens underwater, the seafloor lifts and then drops back down, causing the overlying water to be displaced and triggering waves of water.A tsunami wave that begins in the vast ocean has a very small wave height. For this reason, tsunamis in open ocean waters may go unnoticed. In fact, a fisherman out on the ocean may only experience a small swell as a tsunami wave passes below.

Even though tsunamis are not big in height while out at sea, they can be very wide, spanning more than 1,000 football fields across.They also travel very quickly in deep ocean waters, reaching speeds as fast as a jet plane. As the tsunami approaches the coastline and shallow water, it slows in speed but builds in height. When the tsunami comes ashore, it brings with it a tremendous amount of energy and waves that can reach heights of over 100 feet.

Effects of a Tsunami

So you can image that when a huge wall of water comes ashore, there are some devastating effects of a tsunami. As mentioned earlier, a particularly devastating effect of a tsunami reaching land is a loss of life, which can grow into the hundreds of thousands.

Because tsunamis are triggered by sudden events, such as earthquakes, and because they move so quickly over deep ocean waters, there may be little time to warn coastal residents of its arrival.As the massive wall of water crashes onshore, it can cause severe coastal erosion, which is the wearing away of coastal land or beaches. The power of the water can also wash away vegetation, making it hard to reestablish the shoreline.

A tsunami can cause a tremendous amount of structural damage. The force of the water crushes homes and businesses and tears apart infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, leaving behind billions of dollars in damage.The water can continue to flow inland for hundreds of miles, causing severe flooding.

And even after the initial waters recede, the stagnant and contaminated water that remains leads to an elevated risk of disease. Diseases, such as malaria, are more common due to the stagnant water that acts as a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that transmit the disease.Drinking water supplies can become contaminated by sewage and rotting remains of the devastation. And because sewage and freshwater systems may have been damaged by the tsunami, disease can continue to spread long after the tsunami’s initial strike.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. A tsunami is a series of waves caused by an earthquake, underwater volcanic eruption, landslide or other abrupt disturbance. The most common cause of a tsunami is an earthquake, which is a sudden shifting of the earth’s crust, which releases energy.

If an earthquake happens underwater, the seafloor shifts up and down, causing the overlying water to be displaced and triggering waves of water. A tsunami can travel as fast as a jet plane in the deep ocean waters. As it approaches the coastline and shallow water, it slows in speed but builds in height.There are some devastating effects of a tsunami, including the loss of life, which can grow into the hundreds of thousands. It can cause severe coastal erosion, which is the wearing away of coastal land or beaches and a tremendous amount of structural damage. The water can result in severe flooding far inland and the stagnant and contaminated water that remains leads to an elevated risk of disease.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson is finished, you should be able to:

  • Define tsunami
  • Explain what causes tsunamis
  • Describe the destructive power of tsunamis to inhabited coastlines

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