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Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts (2011)

Chapter: Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
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APPENDIX A
Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States

Estimates of tsunami losses and heights are from the NOAA tsunami database.1

Source

Tsunamis

Unknowns

FAULTS—Seismic slip on faults generates tsunamis directly by displacing the floors of water bodies. The slip can also generate tsunamis indirectly through shaking that triggers slides; a category of source treated separately below. Tsunamis most commonly result from slip on the subduction-zone faults that convey one tectonic plate beneath another.

Aleutian-Alaskan subduction zone—Along about 2,500 km of its length, ruptured almost completely in a series of earthquakes between 1938 and 1965.2

The zone’s largest 20th-century tsunamis, both on nearby coasts and on distant ones, were generated during the Aleutian earthquake of 1946 and the Alaskan earthquake of 1964. The far-field part of the 1946 tsunami, chiefly generated directly by faulting,3 caused most of Hawaii’s recorded tsunami deaths. Similarly, the greatest tsunami in Washington, Oregon, and California written history originated off Alaska with tectonic displacement during the 1964 earthquake. Judging from geologic records of predecessors to the 1964 earthquake during the last 6,000 years (Fig. 3-3c),4 ocean-wide tsunamis from the 1964 source recur at irregular intervals averaging close to 600 years.

How often do Aleutian sources spawn tsunamis comparable in far-field size to the tsunamis of 1946 and 1964? How much are recurrence intervals lengthened by aseismic slip in the fault-rupture areas? Will the next large tsunami from the 1964 source recur sooner than average because the 1964 earthquake ended a recurrence interval close to 900 years, about 300 years longer than average? How persistent are the lateral limits of Aleutian-Alaskan fault ruptures of the 20th century as boundaries that define individual tsunami source areas?5

Cascadia subduction zone—1,100 km long. Confirmed as a tsunami hazard by geophysical and geological research in the 1980s and 1990s.6

The main nearby tsunami source for Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Also among the main distant sources for Hawaii.7 Intervals between the zone’s great earthquakes (of estimated magnitude 8.0 or 9.0) average close to 500 years and range from a few centuries to a millennium (Fig. 3-3d).8,9 The most recent of Cascadia’s great earthquakes, of estimated magnitude 8.7-9.2,10 spawned an ocean-wide tsunami in A.D. 1700 (Fig. 2f).

What proportion of Cascadia’s great earthquakes produce unusually large tsunamis by attaining magnitude 9.0?9,11,12 How do those proportions vary along the length of the subduction zone? What partial-length ruptures should be assumed by tsunami modelers?13 What parts of the zone are likely to augment tsunamis on nearby shores by producing greater than average deformation of the ocean floor?12

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

Source

Tsunamis

Unknowns

Caribbean subduction zone—Faults from oblique convergence between the North America and Caribbean plates near Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

A tsunami in 1946, which caused an estimated 1,790 deaths in the Dominican Republic, resulted from a thrust earthquake on or near the plate boundary.14 A tsunami in 1867, with some 30 fatalities in the Virgin Islands, was generated during an earthquake southeast of Puerto Rico in the Anegada Trough (Fig. 3-1b).

What is the tsunami potential of the plate boundary north and northeast of Puerto Rico, and of a probable backthrust south of the island (Muertos Trough)?15 What far-field tsunami hazard does the plate boundary pose to the U.S. Atlantic seaboard?16

Subduction zone off south-central Chile—Source of largest known earthquake, of 1960, and of a predecessor in 183717

The 1837 and 1960 tsunamis each took some 60 lives in Hawaii. The 1960 tsunami also produced strong currents in Los Angeles–Long Beach Harbor. In the source area of the 1960 tsunami, a swath of ocean floor almost 100 km by 800 km probably rose 2 m or more during the 1960 mainshock.18 Tsunamis like the big one in 1960 may have recurred at roughly four-century intervals, on average, during the last 2,000 years (Fig. 3-3b). 19

What factors enabled this subduction zone to produce the outsize earthquake and tsunami of 1960,20 and what do these factors imply for tsunami hazards from subduction zones—including the Kuril, Japan, and Mariana examples below—that are not known to have produced earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 yet may be capable of doing so?21,22

Subduction zone along the Kuril Trench—Produced earthquake of Mw 8.3 in 2006

The tsunami from the 2006 earthquake caused an estimated $700,000 in damage in Crescent City, California.23

How large were the unusually large Kuril earthquakes inferred from geological signs of tsunamis and postseismic uplift in Hokkaido?24,25

Subduction zone along the Japan Trench—No measured earthquake larger than Mw 8.322

In simulations with unit sources having 1 m of seismic slip on fault-rupture patches 50 km by 100 km, Crescent City’s greatest tsunami threat from the western Pacific is the subduction zone along the Japan Trench.23

Is the Japan Trench limited to earthquakes as large as those in its written historical record?26

Mariana subduction zone—No measured earthquake larger than Mw 7.221 or 7.722

Simulated for earthquakes as large as Mw 9.3 to make hazard assessments for nearby Guam27 and distant Pearl Harbor.7

What is the maximum plausible earthquake from the Mariana subduction zone, classically considered a place where plates are weakly coupled and the interplate thrust earthquakes consequently of modest size?28

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

Source

Tsunamis

Unknowns

Source of the 1755 Lisbon tsunami—Offshore faulting related to collision of the Nubian (African) and Eurasian plates29

The 1755 tsunami was noted in the Caribbean, from Barbados northwestward to Cuba. Its maximum estimated Caribbean height is 7 m. The tsunami is unknown from ports along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, probably because of shielding by submarine hills that directed the transatlantic waves northwestward toward Newfoundland and southwestward toward the Caribbean and Brazil.30

How did the 1755 tsunami affect Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands? Does it account for overwash of Anegada, in the British Virgin Islands northeast of Puerto Rico (Fig. 3-3e)? How often can tsunamis like the one in 1755 be expected?

Seattle fault—One of several faults capable of displacing waters of Puget Sound.31

Six-meter uplift along the Seattle fault generated a tsunami in Puget Sound during an earthquake about 1,100 years ago.32 The same earthquake set off slides in Lake Washington.33

How often does the Seattle fault produce earthquakes like the one 1,100 years ago? Do tsunamis result from slip limited to the Seattle fault’s backthrusts, which have a post-glacial history of repeated earthquakes?34

SLIDES—Most slides that set off tsunamis have been triggered by earthquake or, less commonly, by volcanic eruption. Several grand examples:

• Lituya Bay, Alaska, 1958—An earthquake-induced rockslide in 1958 set off a giant wave that trimmed trees to an altitude of 525 m.35

• Sunda Strait, Indonesia, 1883—The explosion of Krakatau triggered a tsunami that killed an estimated 35,000 persons.36

• North Sea, 8,000 years ago—The Storegga slide displaced 2,400-3,200 km3 of ocean-bottom materials37 and generated waves known from tsunami deposits in Norway and Scotland.38,39

• Big Island of Hawaii, 120,000 years ago—Flank collapse produced tsunami run-ups to heights of hundreds of meters.40 A catastrophic ancestor to the local Hawaiian tsunamis that killed 46 persons in 1846 and 2 in 1975.41

Slide-generated tsunamis rarely amount to much on distant shores. Compared with the areas of ocean floor displaced by faulting during great subduction zone earthquakes, their source areas are usually compact. Slides therefore yield tsunami waves of short period that diminish rapidly with distance. This decrease helps limit the hazards to the U.S. Atlantic coast from flank collapse in the Canary Islands, off West Africa.42

Alaskan slides during the 1964 earthquake—Slides at Chenaga,43 Kenai Lake,44 Seward,45 Valdez,46 and Whittier47

The separate tsunamis from the Chenaga, Seward, Valdez, and Whitter slides together account for 79 of the 106 Alaskan deaths from tsunamis that the 1964 earthquake triggered (Fig. 3-2e). Most of the slides resulted from shaking-induced failures of deltas.

What do these slides imply for Puget Sound deltas as potential tsunami sources?31

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

Source

Tsunamis

Unknowns

Slides off Puerto Rico Aided by a wealth of steep slopes (Fig. 3-1b) and by active faults associated with the nearby plate boundary48

The 1918 tsunami, which caused roughly 40 deaths, may have resulted from an earthquake-induced slide.49 The slide extends from a headscarp at 1,200 m depth to a terminus at 4,200 m in Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. It likely displaced 10 km3 of water.

What slides are poised to generate tsunamis elsewhere on the steep submarine slopes off Puerto Rico?50

Volcanic debris flows—Hot and cold debris flows into Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay, Alaska; debris avalanche at Mount St. Helens

A tsunami in Cook Inlet resulted from a debris avalanche off erupting Augustine Volcano in 1883. Sedimentary deposits suggest that Augustine and Redoubt Volcanoes triggered additional Cook Inlet tsunamis in the last 4,000 years,51 and that a caldera-forming eruption of Aniakchak Volcano generated a tsunami 3,500 years ago in Bristol Bay.52 The debris avalanche at the outset of the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, upon entering Spirit Lake, set off a tsunami that reached heights of 250 m above the former lake level.53

How many of Augustine’s debris avalanches, a dozen of which have reached Cook Inlet in the last 2,000 years alone, sent tsunamis onto now-populated parts of the Kenai Peninsula?54

Slides off southern California—Include the Palos Verdes slide, of 0.8 km3 with a headscarp 5 km off the coast near Los Angeles (Fig. 3-1c)55

The Palos Verdes slide serves as a poster child for southern California’s near-field tsunami hazard. Other potential sources include a submarine slide near Santa Barbara and offshore faults with known or inferred Quaternary displacement.56-61 The Palos Verdes slide occurred close to 7,500 years ago.55

How do southern California’s nearby sources of tsunamis compare, in probability and size, with its distant causes of lesser inundation?

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

Source

Tsunamis

Unknowns

Slides off the edge of the U.S. Atlantic continental shelf Cover one-third of the continental slope and rise off New England, one-sixth off the Middle Atlantic, and one-eighth off the Southeast62

Submarine slides are “considered the primary source of potential tsunamis along the U.S. Atlantic coast.”15 The Currituck slide, with an estimated volume of 165 km3, is among the largest of these.63 Its simulated tsunamis originate with peak-to-trough amplitudes of several tens of meters. The waves crest about 6 m above sea level as they overtop the sandy barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound, North Carolina.64

How probable are these slides today? Most of the slides off the U.S. Atlantic coast occurred at least 5,000 years ago, the notable exception being Canada’s Grand Banks slide, which generated a tsunami that took 28 lives in Newfoundland in 1929.65 The Currituck slide dates to roughly 25,000-50,000 years ago.66 Probabilities aside, simulating slides like Currituck requires uncertain estimates of slide size, speed, and duration, all factors in the slide’s effectiveness at generating a tsunami.64

Slumps and slides beneath the Gulf of MexicoSome generated by rise of salt domes,67 others at scarps in carbonate rocks,68 still others by ice-age lowering of sea level69

No confirmed tsunamis. Tsunami hazard inferred from a slump with a volume of 50-60 km3 in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.70

As with the slides off the U.S. Atlantic coast, are the Gulf of Mexico examples mainly relicts from times of lowered sea level?69

Slides ascribed to human activity Includes construction at Skagway, Alaska,71 and fluctuation of the level of a reservoir in northeast Washington State72

Skagway: Wave heights said 5-6 m high in inlet and 9-11 m high at shore; one fatality.71 Northeast Washington: Waves up to 20 m high from shores of the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam,72 smaller examples from summer 2009.73

Causes considered for the Skagway slide include natural failure as well as dock construction.71

Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
×

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63. Locat, J., H.J. Lee, U.S. ten Brink, D. Twichell, E.L. Geist, and M. Sansoucy. 2009. Geomorphology, stability and mobility of the Currituck slide. Marine Geology 264(1-2):28-40.

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
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66. Prior, D.B., E.H. Doyle, and T. Neurauter. 1986. The Currituck Slide, Mid-Atlantic continental slope: Revisited. Marine Geology 73(1-2):25-45.

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70. Trabant, P., P. Watts, F.L. Lettieri, and G.A. Jamieson. 2001. East Breaks slump, Northwest Gulf of Mexico. In Proceedings Offshore Technology Conference, Houston, Texas.

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72. Jones, F.O., D.R. Embody, W.L. Peterson, and R.M. Hazlewood. 1961. Landslides along the Columbia River valley, northeastern Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 367:1-98.

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
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Suggested Citation:"Appendix A: Examples of Tsunami Sources That Threaten the United States." National Research Council. 2011. Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation's Preparedness Efforts. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12628.
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Next: Appendix B: Review of the Tsunami Warning and Forecast System and Overview of the Nation's Tsunami Preparedness »
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Many coastal areas of the United States are at risk for tsunamis. After the catastrophic 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, legislation was passed to expand U.S. tsunami warning capabilities. Since then, the nation has made progress in several related areas on both the federal and state levels. At the federal level, NOAA has improved the ability to detect and forecast tsunamis by expanding the sensor network. Other federal and state activities to increase tsunami safety include: improvements to tsunami hazard and evacuation maps for many coastal communities; vulnerability assessments of some coastal populations in several states; and new efforts to increase public awareness of the hazard and how to respond.

Tsunami Warning and Preparedness explores the advances made in tsunami detection and preparedness, and identifies the challenges that still remain. The book describes areas of research and development that would improve tsunami education, preparation, and detection, especially with tsunamis that arrive less than an hour after the triggering event. It asserts that seamless coordination between the two Tsunami Warning Centers and clear communications to local officials and the public could create a timely and effective response to coastal communities facing a pending tsuanami.

According to Tsunami Warning and Preparedness, minimizing future losses to the nation from tsunamis requires persistent progress across the broad spectrum of efforts including: risk assessment, public education, government coordination, detection and forecasting, and warning-center operations. The book also suggests designing effective interagency exercises, using professional emergency-management standards to prepare communities, and prioritizing funding based on tsunami risk.

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