Imagine you're in the tropical paradise of Hilo, Hawaii, having breakfast at a cafe overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There you are, just kicking back and listening to the radio, when suddenly, local authorities issue a warning that a giant wall of water is approachinga tsunami! You move fast and get to higher ground. As the tsunami approaches, the waves crash and there's a thunderous roar. Moments later you realize how lucky you are to be alive. The tsunami, which had been traveling hundreds of miles an hour, wiped out the town, killing hundreds of people.
This event actually happened. On April 1, 1946, and on May 23, 1960, tsunamis with 35-foot waves crashed into Hilo, Hawaii. They flooded the downtown area, killed a total of 220 people, and caused millions of dollars in damage.
So what exactly is a tsunami? A tsunami is a series of huge waves that happen after an underwater disturbance, such as an undersea earthquake. But landslides, volcanic eruptions, and meteorites can also cause tsunamis. Tsunami waves travel in all directions from the area of the disturbance, like the ripples that happen when you toss a stone into a pool of water. But tsunami waves can travel up to 450 miles per hour! It's not until the waves get near the coast that they get really highup to 100 feet tall. When a tsunami hits, it usually pushes large debris, including boats, hundreds of yards inland. And since a tsunami has multiple waves, it can wreak havoc for several hours after it first strikes land.
Tsunamis occur throughout the world, but they are most common in the Pacific Basin because it's the most geologically active area on Earth. Of all the U.S. states, Hawaii is most at risk for a tsunami. It gets about one a year, with damaging tsunamis happening about once every seven years. Alaska is also at high risk, and California, Oregon, and Washington experience damaging tsunamis about once every 18 years.
Fortunately, an international tsunami warning system was put in place in 1965. So if you live by the ocean, learn how to prepare for a tsunami and heed tsunami warnings. It could save your life.