Science and CSU

Tsunamis – from north to south, some CSU insights




When a great earthquake struck Japan earlier today, it triggered a tsunami that devastated many areas along Japan’s coast. Meanwhile, across the ocean, residents along more than 500 miles of coastal California began to prepare for the prospect of a tsunami arriving about 10 hours later.

The news also generated this reminder for coastal Californians: If you are at the beach and a major earthquake strikes, do not wait for an official warning: Move to higher ground or inland as soon as possible.

According to Humboldt State geology professor and tsunami expert Lori Dengler, California’s north coast is the most tsunami-prone area of the continental United States. Thanks to efforts by Dengler, her colleagues and students, the region’s residents have developed heightened levels of awareness, preparedness and response.

A centerpiece of those efforts is “Living on Shaky Ground,” a print and online publication developed by Dengler and subtitled, “How to survive earthquakes and tsunamis in Northern California.”

It offers this special caution to surfers:

“Tsunamis are not surfable. If you’re a surfer, you know how little control you have if your board is in whitewater. A tsunami has no face, so there’s nothing for a surfboard to grip. The water isn’t clean, but filled with everything dredged up from the sea floor and the land the wave runs over including garbage, parking meters, pieces of buildings, and dead animals.

“You can’t dive beneath the wave because the entire water column is in motion, not just the top few feet. You can’t exit the wave either, because the trough behind may be 100 or more miles away, and all that water is moving towards you. Big-wave riders should save their talents—and their lives—for big waves that are generated by massive storms.”

For more, see “On Shaky Ground” at

(A Humboldt graduate student recently received a community award for her master’s project to bolster the tsunami readiness of the Big Lagoon community, about 25 miles north of the university.)

At San Francisco State University, scientists have partnered with technology corporations to improve the monitoring of critical environmental data about oceans as it relates to earthquake and tsunami detection.

Farther south, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that inundated the Banda Aceh and other parts of Indonesia, Cal State Fullerton’s Titan magazine asked three campus geologists, could it happen in Southern California?

The Fullerton trio noted that the continental-plate geology beneath Southern California is less likely than that underlying some other areas of the Pacific Rim to generate a “great quake” capable of inducing a local tsunami. The string of Channel Islands also offers some protection. Yet, a tsunami triggered by a giant earthquake far across the Pacific may have serious consequences for low-lying areas of Southern California.

For more, read the full Titan article here.

For an update from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, see this earlier post.

— Sean Kearns