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Skip Navigation LinksHome : Tsunamis : Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions

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Is it possible for a tsunami of similar strength to the one that occurred in the Indian Ocean on 26th December, 2004 to occur in the Caribbean?

Can an eruption from the Kick 'em Jenny submarine volcano cause a tsunami?

Is it true that there is a volcano in the Canary Islands that can cause a mega-tsunami in the Caribbean?

What can we do to prepare for a tsunami?

What is a tsunami?
A tsunami (soo-NAH-mee) is an ocean wave or series of waves caused by a sudden disturbance of the ocean floor that displaces a large amount of water. Tsunamis are caused generally by earthquakes, less commonly by submarine landslides, infrequently by submarine volcanic eruptions and very rarely by large meteorite impacts in the ocean.

Why is it called a tsunami?
The word tsunami is taken from two Japanese words which mean harbour (tsu) wave (nami). Tsunamis are quite common in Japan.

Do all earthquakes cause tsunamis?

No, all earthquakes do not cause tsunamis. There are four conditions necessary for an earthquake to cause a tsunami:
(1) The earthquake must occur beneath the ocean or cause material to slide in the ocean.
(2) The earthquake must be strong, at least magnitude 6.5.
(3) The earthquake must rupture the Earth’s surface and it must occur at shallow depth – less than 70km below the surface of the Earth.
(4) The earthquake must cause vertical movement of the sea floor (up to several metres).

Can an earthquake from outside of the Caribbean region cause a tsunami?
Yes, a tsunami may be generated from earthquakes occurring both within and outside of the region. In 1766 the Great Lisbon earthquake near Portugal caused a tsunami “as high as the upper storeys of houses” on the east coast of Martinique. Waves 2m high were also observed at the east coast of Barbados. Click here for more information on historical tsunamis in the Caribbean.

Why have we been having so many 'big' earthquakes recently?
Are they all triggering each other?
While all of these earthquakes have been caused by the same process, i.e. the movement of the Earth’s plates, one earthquake has not triggered another. Additionally, the succession of earthquakes does not necessarily mean that something is ‘wrong’ with the Earth. These events are all part of the Earth’s natural processes.

How do volcanic eruptions cause tsunamis?

Although relatively infrequent, violent volcanic eruptions can displace a great volume of water and generate extremely destructive tsunami waves in the immediate source area. According to this mechanism, waves may be generated by the sudden displacement of water caused by a volcanic explosion, by a volcano's slope failure, or more likely by a phreatomagmatic explosion and collapse/engulfment of the volcanic magmatic chambers. One of the largest and most destructive tsunamis ever recorded was generated in August 26, 1883 after the explosion and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa (Krakatau), in Indonesia. This explosion generated waves that reached 135 feet, destroyed coastal towns and villages along the Sunda Strait in both the islands of Java and Sumatra, killing 36, 417 people. It is also believed that the destruction of the Minoan civilization in Greece was caused in 1490 B.C. by the explosion/collapse of the volcano of Santorin in the Aegean Sea. (Courtesy: UNESCO IOC - International Tsunami Information Center)

Are a tsunami and a tidal wave the same thing?
No. Strictly speaking, a tidal wave is related to ocean tides while a tsunami is triggered by earthquakes, landslides or volcanic events.

How are tsunamis different from normal ocean waves?
• Ocean waves are related to changes in the atmosphere while tsunamis are related to changes within the Earth.

• Tsunami waves are distinguished from ordinary ocean waves by their long wavelengths (distance between two crests or highest point of the wave), often exceeding 100 kilometers in the deep ocean and by the long amount of time between the arrivals of these crests, ranging from five minutes to an hour.

• Most tsunami waves do not break like normal surf waves at the beach that curl over as they approach shore rather they come in much like a very strong and very fast wall of water. Those that do break often form vertical walls of turbulent water called bores.

Click here  for more information on how tsunamis differ from normal ocean waves.


Can you surf on a tsunami wave?

Absolutely not! Tsunami waves cannot be surfed. Tsunamis are an extremely dangerous phenomenon that should be avoided at all times. Aside from a tsunami’s tremendous destructive power, there is a large amount of seafloor material (mud and sediment) in a tsunami unlike normal ocean waves comprised mostly of water. This makes them very dangerous for surfing.

Can tsunamis be predicted?

Currently, scientists cannot say when and where an earthquake might occur and so they cannot predict when an earthquake-generated tsunami might occur. Tsunamis that are triggered by volcanic activity – like submarine volcanic eruptions or pyroclastic flows - can be forecasted if the volcano is carefully monitored as is the case with volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean.

If a tsunami is detected by scientists how much time will they have to warn the public?
Warning time for a tsunami can be anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours depending on how close your island is to the earthquake that triggered the tsunami. For example, if you live in St. Kitts and an earthquake occurred near Antigua a tsunami could impact your island within minutes. Alternatively, if an earthquake were to occur off the west coast of Africa, a tsunami from that earthquake would take several hours before reaching the Caribbean.
Is there a tsunami early warning system in the Caribbean?
Currently, there is no Caribbean tsunami early warning system. Scientists at various monitoring agencies in the Caribbean and adjacent areas (the Caribbean, Central America, South America) are in the process of developing a tsunami warning system for the region but it may be several years before this is complete. This project is being coordinated by the ICG/CARIBE EWS the Caribbean chapter of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

In the mean time, if an earthquake occurs that can or has triggered a tsunami that may affect the Caribbean, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) will send a warning to specific government agencies in the Caribbean. Communicating this warning to the wider public, however, is a component that is currently being developed for Caribbean.

Can a tsunami occur anywhere in the world?

Yes, all oceanic regions of the world can experience tsunamis, but in the Pacific Ocean large, destructive tsunamis occur much more frequently because of the many large earthquakes occurring in the margins of the Pacific Ocean.

Is it possible for a tsunami of similar amplitude and strength to the one that occurred in the Indian Ocean to occur here in the Caribbean?
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake which occurred on 26th December, 2004 off the west coast of northern Sumatra, was the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900. The tsunami triggered by that earthquake killed over 250,000 people in at least eleven countries. While it is possible for a similar tsunami to occur in the Caribbean, scientists currently believe that there is a very small chance of this happening. As far as we know, the largest tsunami to affect the Caribbean in the past 500 years was 8m in height.
Can an eruption from the Kick 'em Jenny submarine volcano cause a tsunami?
Kick ‘em Jenny is a submarine (underwater) volcano located 9 km north of Grenada. Currently, scientists believe that there is a very small chance that an eruption of the volcano would trigger a tsunami. Measurements of the volcano were taken in 2003 and the results showed that the summit (highest point) of the volcano is quite deep below the surface of the sea, too deep for an eruption of the kind normally seen to trigger a tsunami.

Is it true that there is a volcano in the Canary Islands that can cause a mega-tsunami in the Caribbean?

The Cumbre Vieja Volcano is on the Island of La Palma in the Canary Islands (off the west coast of Africa). There are some scientists who think that if the western flank (side) of the volcano were to collapse and drop 150 to 500km3 of rock into the sea, massive tsunamis could be generated which could devastate islands in the Caribbean as well as coastal areas in North America.

While this may be possible, this is in fact a worst case scenario and it is not the most likely scenario. Scientists at the Seismic Research Centre believe that there is a very small chance of this ever happening and so, planning for such a rare event should not be a priority at this time. Instead, attention should be placed on the dangers posed by immediate natural hazards in the region such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic events. It should be noted, however, that the planning currently taking place to cater for tsunamis in the region will also cover the most likely event that might occur at Cumbre Vieja.

What can we do to prepare for a tsunami?
If you live in a low-lying area make yourself familiar with the quickest way to get to higher ground. Make sure all family members know the evacuation plan. If you are close to the sea and the water retreats or pulls back by an abnormal amount, move to high ground at once. Visit the Tsunami Safety pages for more information.

If you detect signs of a tsunami move immediately to higher ground!