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What Are Tsunamis and Can They Be Affected by Global Warming?

written by: Niki Fears•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 4/30/2009

Learn what tsunamis are and what role global warming may play in their effects

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    When talking about global warming, climate change, and the increase and severity of natural disasters we often hear about hurricanes, snow storms, flooding, and other types of severe weather. But what about a tsunami? Is there any connection between global warming and the climate change that results from it and the deadly impacts of tsunamis. In this two part series we will aim to answer this question. In this article we will take a look at tsunamis and try to answer a few basic questions about them, such as: What exactly is a tsunami? What causes a tsunami and how do they work?

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    What Are Tsunamis?

    waves 

    The word tsunami comes from a combination of two Japanese words which mean “harbor” and “wave”. Tsunamis are more commonly known as tidal waves although this name is rather misleading because tsunamis do not actually have anything to do with the tides. Instead, they are large waves that occur when an extremely large amount of water is suddenly displaced after an event such as an earthquake, landslide, or from the force of a volcano erupting. Because of this association with seismic activity, tsunamis are often referred to in the physical sciences as seismic sea waves.

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    How Do Tsunamis Work?

    When a tsunami is in the deep waters of the ocean they can have a wave length of over 120 miles traveling at speeds of up to 500 mph. This great speed means that tsunamis can turn deadly to areas far away from the original seismic event before anyone has time to adequately prepare. To understand how a tsunami works think about sitting on the side of a pool when someone takes a giant leap into the water. That sudden and massive event causes the water to suddenly be displaced, rising up and splashing out of the pool. This same principle applies when there is a large landslide or a volcanic explosion in or near the sea. The force from that event pushes the water but since it happens so suddenly and on such a large scale the resulting wave grows in length and power and can cause an often devastating “splash” when it hits shore. As it approaches the shore, the resistance from the land begins to slow the wave, to about 50 mph, and compresses the wave length. As this water is compressed, the wave begins to form and grow in height tsunami before finally cresting as it slams into the shore. While any victims on the coast would see this process occurring, the wave would grow so rapidly that there is little time for them to get out of harms way. In some cases, with very large tsunamis, the water may recede dramatically as the wave forms depending on where the seismic activity occurred and the magnitude of the wave.

    Understandably, tsunamis can be quite deadly and have killed thousands in a single strike. But does global warming play any role in this? Stay tuned for the second part of this article in which we will discuss the theories involving global warming's effect on tsunamis and the impact that they have.