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A tsunami or tidal wave, also known as a seismic sea wave, is a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other underwater explosions (including detonations of underwater nuclear devices), landslides, glacier calvings, meteorite impacts and other disturbances above or below water all have the potential to generate a tsunami. Unlike normal ocean waves, which are generated by wind, or tides, which are generated by the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun, a tsunami is generated by the displacement of water.

Tsunami waves do not resemble normal undersea currents or sea waves, because their wavelength is far longer. Rather than appearing as a breaking wave, a tsunami may instead initially resemble a rapidly rising tide, and for this reason they are often referred to as tidal waves, although this usage is not favoured by the scientific community because tsunamis are not tidal in nature. Tsunamis generally consist of a series of waves, with periods ranging from minutes to hours, arriving in a so-called "internal wave train". Wave heights of tens of metres can be generated by large events. Although the impact of tsunamis is limited to coastal areas, their destructive power can be enormous and they can affect entire ocean basins; the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was among the deadliest natural disasters in human history, with at least 230,000 people killed or missing in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

Greek historian Thucydides suggested in his late-5th century BC History of the Peloponnesian War, that tsunamis were related to submarine earthquakes, but the understanding of a tsunami's nature remained slim until the 20th century and much remains unknown. Major areas of current research include trying to determine why some large earthquakes do not generate tsunamis while other smaller ones do; trying to accurately forecast the passage of tsunamis across the oceans; and also to forecast how tsunami waves interact with specific shorelines.

History of Tsunami:

While Japan may have the longest recorded history of tsunamis, the sheer destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami event mark it as the most devastating of its kind in modern times, killing around 230,000 people. The Sumatran region is not unused to tsunamis either, with earthquakes of varying magnitudes regularly occurring off the coast of the island.

Tsunamis are an often underestimated hazard in the Mediterranean Sea and parts of Europe. Of historical and current (with regard to risk assumptions) importance are the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami (which was caused by the Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault), the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes, each causing several tens of thousands of deaths and the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami claimed more than 123,000 lives in Sicily and Calabria and is among the most deadly natural disasters in modern Europe. The Storegga Slide in the Norwegian sea and some examples of tsunamis affecting the British Isles refer to landslide and meteotsunamis predominantly and less to earthquake-induced waves.

As early as 426 BC the Greek historian Thucydides inquired in his book History of the Peloponnesian War about the causes of tsunami, and was the first to argue that ocean earthquakes must be the cause.

The cause, in my opinion, of this phenomenon must be sought in the earthquake. At the point where its shock has been the most violent the sea is driven back, and suddenly recoiling with redoubled force, causes the inundation. Without an earthquake I do not see how such an accident could happen.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae 26.10.15–19) described the typical sequence of a tsunami, including an incipient earthquake, the sudden retreat of the sea and a following gigantic wave, after the 365 AD tsunami devastated Alexandria.

The principal generation mechanism (or cause) of a tsunami is the displacement of a substantial volume of water or perturbation of the sea. This displacement of water is usually attributed to either earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, glacier calvings or more rarely by meteorites and nuclear tests. The waves formed in this way are then sustained by gravity.

Tsunami can be generated when the sea floor abruptly deforms and vertically displaces the overlying water. Tectonic earthquakes are a particular kind of earthquake that are associated with the Earth's crustal deformation; when these earthquakes occur beneath the sea, the water above the deformed area is displaced from its equilibrium position. More specifically, a tsunami can be generated when thrust faults associated with convergent or destructive plate boundaries move abruptly, resulting in water displacement, owing to the vertical component of movement involved. Movement on normal (extensional) faults can also cause displacement of the seabed, but only the largest of such events (typically related to flexure in the outer trench swell) cause enough displacement to give rise to a significant tsunami, such as the 1977 Sumba and 1933 Sanriku events.

Tsunamis have a small amplitude (wave height) offshore, and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometres long, whereas normal ocean waves have a wavelength of only 30 or 40 metres), which is why they generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a slight swell usually about 300 millimetres (12 in) above the normal sea surface. They grow in height when they reach shallower water, in a wave shoaling process described below. A tsunami can occur in any tidal state and even at low tide can still inundate coastal areas.

On April 1, 1946, the 8.6 Mw Aleutian Islands earthquake occurred with a maximum Mercalli intensity of VI (Strong). It generated a tsunami which inundated Hilo on the island of Hawaii with a 14-metre high (46 ft) surge. Between 165 and 173 were killed. The area where the earthquake occurred is where the Pacific Ocean floor is subducting (or being pushed downwards) under Alaska.

Examples of tsunami originating at locations away from convergent boundaries include Storegga about 8,000 years ago, Grand Banks 1929, Papua New Guinea 1998 (Tappin, 2001). The Grand Banks and Papua New Guinea tsunamis came from earthquakes which destabilised sediments, causing them to flow into the ocean and generate a tsunami. They dissipated before travelling transoceanic distances.

The cause of the Storegga sediment failure is unknown. Possibilities include an overloading of the sediments, an earthquake or a release of gas hydrates (methane etc.).

are recent examples of powerful megathrust earthquakes that generated tsunamis (known as teletsunamis) that can cross entire oceans. Smaller (Mw 4.2) earthquakes in Japan can trigger tsunamis (called local and regional tsunamis) that can only devastate nearby coasts, but can do so in only a few minutes.

Some interesting pictures of Tsunami in action:

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