You’re on a beach. Not a worry in the world. The sun bronzing your skin, sand trickling between your toes,
the sound of waves– wait, what?
Where’d all the water go? Did you see it going out? Now what?
Better act quickly; in a matter of minutes, you might be underwater. Tsunamis are triggered by intense underwater activity, usually an earthquake, or an underwater volcanic eruption.
These events displace huge volumes of water, pushing it up from the ocean’s floor to its surface. But when gravity pulls it back down, all this built up energy is released outwards, forming deadly waves that grow stronger as they ripple across the ocean.
A tsunami’s waves can be 100 km (62 miles) long, and sometimes taller than 30 meters (100 ft)! They can travel across whole oceans, moving at the speed of a jet airplane.
So with such speed, strength, and stamina, how does anyone stand a chance? Even in a tsunami hazard zone, you can still survive, if you know what to do.
Step 1: Know the signs
The first step to survival is to be able to identify the early signs of a tsunami. The Pacific ocean is home to volatile tectonic activity, which explains why 75% of the world’s volcanic eruptions and 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur in the Pacific.
These geological disturbances are the reason why 85% of all tsunamis happen in the Pacific Ocean. In most cases, an earthquake comes before a tsunami. So if you’re near the coast, and you experience an earthquake, protect yourself from that first. But once the shaking stops, move to higher ground as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Stay away from the beach
An early sign of an impending tsunami is that water along the coast will recede. It pulls back and exposes the sea floor.
Do not go to the beach to investigate! You’ll only be putting yourself at risk for when the water surges back. Instead, head in the opposite direction. Try to get as far as three and a half km (2 miles) from the ocean, or 30 metres (100 feet) above sea level to ensure your safety.
Step 3: Seek higher ground
Tsunamis travel quickly, and you may not have enough time to clear the hazard zone. In this case, look for a tall building, with a sturdy concrete foundation. If you see one nearby, run inside and get to the roof as quickly as possible.
Step 4: Grab onto something and hold on.
If you can’t make it to a building in time, your best bet is to grab onto something and hold on. Though that might not sound very practical, hold the eye-roll for a moment.
In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, an Indonesian woman was finally rescued after holding onto a palm tree for 5 days straight. While it isn’t ideal, if you can’t get to higher ground in time, you need to find something to hold on to.
As the tsunami moves inland, it will sweep tons of debris along with it. This can be very dangerous, since the accumulation of debris, traveling at high speeds, become fatal obstacles for anyone who’s been caught in the current. However, many tsunami victims have been saved by climbing onto detached roofs or holding on tightly to floating cars or other large objects.
Step 5: It’s not over ’til its over
A tsunami isn’t one wave, but a series of waves, known as a tsunami wave train. Waves may be anywhere from 5 minutes apart, to an hour apart. And be aware that the first wave that hits isn’t always the strongest.
So even when you think it’s over, stay where you’re safe until you hear from local officials. It goes without saying, tsunamis are terrifying. And when a 30 meter (100 ft) wave is hurtling towards you at 800 kilometers an hour (500 mph), you’re probably feeling pretty hopeless. But have faith in science, trust empirical research, and you’ll see there’s always a way out.
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