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Tsunamis Through History

The world have been gripped by the devastation and tragedy after tsunamis decimated coastal areas of Southern Asia and East Africa on December 26th, 2004.  Although it has been two weeks since, the tragedy is seemingly never ending, as the destruction caused by the ferocious waves have led to the deaths of over 150,000 people in 12 countries, as well as displacing millions more people who left to rely on international relief efforts. 

As we have watched the unfolding of the tragic aftermath - the rising death toll rises, the images of whole villages wiped out, the wondering displaced in refugee-like camps, the immense aid and relief efforts – many citizens of the world are only beginning to learn about the powerful force of a tsunami for the very first time.  

The recent tsunami is the most devastating tsunami, in terms of claiming human lives, recorded in history.  Although tsunamis are rare, there have been other significant tsunami that have occurred in all major oceans – Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic – since the dawn of civilization.  References to these natural disastrous phenomena have been made backs as far as to the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.  The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that on the average, there are two tsunamis per year somewhere in the world which cause damage near the source.  Approximately every 15 years a tsunami causing wide spread destruction will usually occur. 

The following is a historical overview of some of the most destructive tsunamis that have transpired since the dawn of civilization:

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunamis Affecting Southern Asia and Eastern Africa

A massive earthquake measuring over 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred under the Indian ocean floor just of the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  Violent movement of the Earth's tectonic plates in this area displaced an enormous amount of water, sending powerful tsunami waves in every direction.  Within hours killer tsunami waves radiating from the earthquake’s epicenter slammed into the coastline of 12 Indian Ocean countries.  The tsunami waves had heights reaching up to 15 meters (50 feet) which snatched people out to sea, drowning others in their homes or on beaches, and demolishing an immense amount of property in many areas.     

The tsunamis generated by the earthquake have killed over the 150,000 people in twelve countries (Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Maldives, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, and Kenya).  The hardest hit country was Indonesia, which was the closest to the earthquake’s epicenter.  The country have reported death tolls exceeding over 105,000 people with almost all mortalities from the Aceh Province at the northern end of the island of Sumatra. 

1998 Tsunami Affecting Papua New Guinea 

On July 17th, 1998, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale occurred about 15 miles just of the coast of northern Papua New Guinea, an island nation located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean just south of Indonesia and north of Australia.  While the magnitude of the quake was not large enough to create the tsunami directly, it is believed the earthquake generated an undersea landslide, which in turn caused the tsunami.  Following the earthquake, a tsunami with waves reaching 12 meters (40 feet) hit the Papua New Guinea coast within 10 minutes, destroying the villages of Arop and Warapu.  An estimated 2,200 people were killed.         

1976 Tsunami Affecting the Philippines

Around midnight on August 16th 1976, an earthquake measuring approximately 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred in the Moro Gulf a few miles away from the coast of the Philippine island of Mindanao.  The earthquake itself was responsible for causing widespread damage, but its effect paled in comparison to the tsunami it helped created.  The massive tsunami that devastated 700 kilometers of coastline bordering Moro Gulf in the North Celebes Sea, resulting in destruction and death in the coastal communities of the Sulu Archipelago and southern Mindanoa, including Zamboanga City and Pagadian City.  Over 5,000 people were killed as they were swept out to sea, with thousands more remaining “missing”.      

1964 Tsunami Affecting the West Coast of North America

Now known as the Good Friday Tsunami, the west coast, especially in the state of Alaska, was affected by a tsunami that was the most devastating ever in the continent of North America.  On March 28th 1964, the United States experienced its biggest earthquake in history near College Fjord in Prince William Sound of the coast of Alaska that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale.  The earthquake lasted for three to five minutes in most areas with jolting of the ocean floor creating large tsunamis.  Although the earthquake did cause some destruction, the majority of death and property damage was caused by the resulting tsunami.  The small Alaskan coastal communities of Girdwood, Portage, Vladez, and some native villages were absolutely decimated.  There were a total of 106 people killed in Alaska due to the tsunami waves which reached heights of 11.5 meters (38 feet).   

The tsunami traveled south along the west coast to impact the Canadian province of British Columbia.  The mainland coast and Vancouver Island were affected where houses were seen being washed away to sea.  Considerable damage was also felt in Crescent City, California where eleven people lost their lives.  Even Hawaii, thousands of kilometers away felt the impact of the tsunami.      

1960 Tsunami Affecting Chile and Pacific Nations 

On May 22 1960, the biggest earthquake ever recorded at the time occurred just of the coast of South central Chile, a nation of South America.  The earthquake measured 9.5 on the Richter scale with swarms of aftershock earthquakes that measured as large 8.0 that followed.  The earthquakes triggered the creation of tsunami, which was responsible for most of the ensuing devastation and death. 

The tsunami, together with the coastal subsidence and flooding, caused tremendous damage along the Chile coast, where about 2,000 people died.  The waves spread outwards across the Pacific.  Fifteen hours after the earthquake, tsunami waves flooded Hilo, on the island of Hawaii, where they built up to thirty feet and caused 61 deaths along the waterfront.  Seven hours after that the waves flooded the coastline of Japan where ten-foot waves caused 200 deaths.  Tsunami waves also caused damage in the Marquesas, in Samoa, and in New Zealand.

1896 Tsunami Affecting Japan 

On June 15 1896, an earthquake occurred of the coast near the Japanese port city of Sanriku.  The earthquake, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, triggered the formation a massive tsunami that devastated the city killing over 26,000 people.  The tsunami waves reached an intimidating height of 25 meters (80 feet) as it crashed upon a crowd that had gathered in a city to celebrate a religious festival.  The tsunami was also observed across the Pacific: In Hawaii, wharves were demolished and several houses were swept away.  In California, a 9.5 feet wave was observed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle of June 16, 1896.  This Sanriku tsunami served as an impetus for tsunami research in Japan.

What is unusual about this disaster is that the size of the tsunami was much larger than would be expected from the size of the earthquake, 7.2 on the Richter scale.  At the time of the Sanriku tsunami earthquake, a weak shock was felt, followed by an extremely slow shaking that lasted about 5 minutes. Approximately 35 minutes after the earthquake, the large tsunami arrived at the Sanriku coast.

1883 Tsunami Affecting Indonesia 

The volcanic explosion of Krakatoa is one of the most impressive natural disasters ever recorded in history.  On August 26th 1883, the island volcano of Krakatoa exploded with devastating fury, blowing its underground magma chamber partly empty so that much overlying land and seabed collapsed into it.  The great majority of the island simply was destroyed as it sank to the ocean floor.  The volcanic disturbance triggered a series of large tsunami waves, some reaching a height of over 40 meters above sea level.  Although no one is known to have been killed as a result of the initial explosion, the tsunamis it generated had disastrous results, killing over 36,000 people, and wiping out a number of settlements, including Telok Batong in Sumatra, and Sirik and Semarang in Java.

Tsunami waves were observed throughout the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the American West Coast, South America, and even as far away as the English Channel.  On the facing coasts of Java and Sumatra the sea flood went many miles inland and caused such vast loss of life that one area was never resettled but went back to the jungle and is now the Ujung Kulon nature reserve.  Ships as far away as South Africa rocked as tsunamis hit them, and the bodies of victims were found floating in the ocean for weeks after the event. There are even numerous documented reports of groups of human skeletons floating across the Indian Ocean on rafts of volcanic pumice and washing up on the east coast of Africa up to a year after the eruption.

1755 Tsunami Affecting Portugal and Much of Europe 

On November 1st 1755, one of the biggest earthquakes in history occurred in the Atlantic Ocean just of the coast of the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon.  The total duration of shaking lasted ten minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts.  Scientists estimate that the earthquake was in the range of 9.0 on the Richter scale, which caused extensive damage throughout Lisbon.  Surprisingly, the events that unfolded from this disaster has been well-documented. 

After the earthquake, survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing the sea floor, littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks.  About 35 minutes after the initial earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the Portuguese harbor and the city’s downtown.  Two other tsunamis followed to add to more devastation to the already suffering area.  Effects from the earthquake and tsunamis were far reaching.  The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal, which included Lisbon.  The tsunami reached, with less intensity, the coast of Spain, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium and Holland.  In Madeira and in the Azores islands damage was extensive and many ships were in danger of being wrecked.  In total, over 100,000 people were killed, with most fatalities incurred in Lisbon, where over a third of the population were instantaneously wiped out.  This tragic disaster served as the impetus for earthquake research in the world.