Magazine article USA TODAY

Breaking the Rules for How Tsunamis Work

Magazine article USA TODAY

Breaking the Rules for How Tsunamis Work

Article excerpt

The earthquake zones off of certain coasts--like those of Japan and Java--make them especially vulnerable to tsunamis, according to a study on natural disasters. They can produce a focusing point that creates massive and devastating tsunamis that break the rules for how scientists used to think tsunamis work. Until now, it largely was believed that the maximum tsunami height onshore could not exceed the depth of the seafloor, but this research shows that, when focusing occurs, that scaling relationship breaks down and flooding can be up to 50% deeper with waves that do not lose height as they get closer to shore.

"It is as if one used a giant magnifying lens to focus tsunami energy," explains Utku Kanoglu, professor at Turkey's Middle East Technical University, and senior author of the study. "Our results show that some shorelines with huge earthquake zones just offshore face a double whammy: not only are they exposed to the tsunamis but, under certain conditions, focusing amplifies these tsunamis far more than shoaling and produces devastating effects."

The team observed this effect in Northern Japan, which was struck by the Tohoku tsunami of 2011, and in Central Java, which was struck by a tsunami in 2006.

"We are still trying to understand the implications," admits Costas Synolakis, director of the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California School of Engineering, Los Angeles, and a coauthor of the study. "However, it is clear that our findings will make it easier to identify locales that are tsunami magnets, and thus help save lives in future events. …

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