2. What types of tsunamis exist?

There is no such thing as a typical tsunami, each one is different. However, tsunamis are collectively unique in the amount of energy they contain, even when compared to the most powerful wind waves.

However, with respect to generation mechanisms, a tsunami can be classified as earthquake generated, volcano generated, landslide generated and impact (such as asteroids) generated tsunamis.

They can also be classified as distantly generated tsunamis and local tsunamis with respect to the distance of the coastal area affected and the generation location.

When a tsunami travels a long distance across the ocean, the sphericity of the Earth must be considered to determine the effects of the tsunami on a distant shoreline. Waves which diverge near their source will converge again at a point on the opposite side of the ocean. An example of this was the 1960 tsunami whose source was on the Chilean coastline, 39.5S., 74.5 W. The coast of japan lies between 30 and 45N. and about 135 to 140 E., a difference of 145 to 150 longitude from the source area. As a result of the convergence of unrefracted wave rays, the coast of japan suffered substantial damage and many deaths occurred.

Figure 5 Convergence of tsunami rays generated by the 1960 Chilean earthquake

As a tsunami approaches a coastline, the waves are modified by the various offshore and coastal features. Submerged ridges and reefs, the continental shelf, headlands, the shapes of bays, and the steepness of the beach slope may modify the wave height, cause wave resonance, reflect wave energy, and/or cause the waves to form bores which surge onto the shoreline.

Ocean ridges provide very little protection to a coastline. While some amount of the energy in a tsunami might reflect from the ridge, the major part of the energy will be transmitted across the ridge and onto the coastline. The 1960 tsunami which orignated along the coast of Chile is an example of this. That tsunami had large wave heights along the entire coast of Japan, including the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu which lie behind the South Honshu Ridge.

Locally generated Tsunamis

When a locally generated tsunami occurs, it impacts coastal areas a very short time after the event which produced the tsunami (earthquake, submarine volcanic eruption or landslide). Lapses as short as two minutes have been observed between the earthquake’s occurrence and the tsunami arrival to the closest shore. Because of this, a tsunami warning system is useless in this type of event and we should not expect instructions from an established system to react and keep us safe from the possible tsunami impact. This operation incapability of the warning systems is further increased by the communications and systems collapse generated by the earthquake. Hence, it is necessary to prepared in advance a proper response plan in case of a tsunami.