The world is waking up to the terrible news of devastation in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other southeast Asian countries, after a deadly tsunami destroyed homes, businesses and killed tens of thousands of people. As the death toll rises, many citizens of the world are learning about this powerful force for the very first time. Although tsunamis have been recorded for hundred of years, this is the first to cause such devastation in centuries. Here is some background on this deadly force of nature.
In Japanese, the word 'tsunami' translates into 'harbor wave.' They can be instigated by a volcanic eruption or landslide. However, the most common cause of a tsunami is an earthquake that occurs on the ocean floor. Waves from tsunamis can can exceed speeds of 500 mph, offering no advance warning to shoreline communities. The tsunami builds in speed and height as it approaches shore, but slows down and gets even higher before striking land.
Tsunamis have a deadly history. On November 1, 1755, a series of earthquakes destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, setting off fires and building collapses. An hour after the quake struck, a 50 foot tsunami swept in. The end result was the death of 60,000 people.
On August 27, 1883, the Indonesian volcano, Krakatau, erupted, causing tsunamis that killed 37,000 people on Java and Sumatra. A series of tsunamis in Japan in 1896 killed 27,000 people, and destroyed more than 10,000 houses.
Tsunais struck Hawaii and Alaska in April 1946 claiming 159 victims. In May 1960, a series of earthquakes in Chile caused tsunamis that killed nearly 1500 people. The same wave hit Hilo Hawaii later in the day and claimed 61 victims. The same tsunami hit Japan the next day and killed 150 more.
More recently, tsunamis have been reported in the Pacific. Between 1992 and 1997, there were 17 such events, which caused the death of nearly 1700 people. Modern technology offers advance warnings of such events in many areas, giving people the chance to escape to higher ground. The deadly effects, however, cannot be avoided, and once the wave begins, scientists have found no way to dispel its power and devastating results.