BOX 1.1

What Is a Tsunami?

A tsunami is a series of waves generated by an impulsive disturbance in a body of water such as a lake or ocean. The disturbance is typically a fault displacement. Less commonly, the displacement results from a landslide (into or below the water surface), volcanic activity, or rarely from a meteorite impact. It typically takes a large earthquake (magnitude >7.0) to generate a damaging tsunami in the near-field and a great earthquake (magnitude >8.0) to generate a tsunami in the far-field. The height of a tsunami ranges from centimeters to more than tens of meters and depends on the initial disturbance and the bathymetry of the seafloor over which the waves travel. The waves are very small in deep water, but grow in height once they move into shallow water. The velocity at which the tsunami travels away from the source depends on the water depth. A tsunami in deep water (≥4 km) is about as fast as a jetliner (700-800 km/hr) and slows to the speed of a car (60 km/hr) in shallow water. For example, a tsunami originating in the central Aleutian Islands near Alaska would arrive on the Hawaiian shores in about five hours. Such tsunamis, originating far from where it runs ashore, are commonly referred to as “far-field” tsunamis, which allow at-risk communities several hours to evacuate if the warning is received promptly. However, a tsunami triggered by an event close to shore (e.g., an earthquake associated with the Cascadia subduction zone), would reach communities in low-lying coastal areas in a few minutes, allowing for little time to warn and evacuate. When the tsunami originates close to the at-risk community, it is termed a “near-field” tsunami. For the near-field tsunami, people need to recognize the triggering earthquake as their warning to evacuate. Tsunami arrival times can range from minutes to many hours. The report mainly discusses the near- and far-field tsunamis (at either extreme end of the arrival time range) because of the unique challenges they pose to the warning and preparedness efforts. However, a tsunami can be triggered by an earthquake that is only weakly felt onshore, yet may arrive in under an hour. Such events are also considered and mentioned because they heighten the challenges associated with preparing and warning the public.

probably triggered by earthquakes, account for much of the known tsunami hazard along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and in southern California (Dunbar and Weaver, 2008). Seismically active faults and the potential for landslides in the Caribbean pose a significant tsunami risk for that region (Dunbar and Weaver, 2008).

Tsunami hazard zones of U.S. coastal communities contain thousands of residents, employees, and tourists, and represent significant economic components of these coastal communities (Wood, 2007; Wood et al., 2007; Wood and Soulard, 2008). The economic and social risks from tsunamis grow with increasing population density along the coasts. To reduce societal risks posed by tsunamis, the nation needs a clear understanding of the nature of the tsunami hazard (e.g., source, inundation area, speed of onset) and the societal characteristics of coastal communities (e.g., the number of people, buildings, infrastructure, and economic activities)

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