EARTH Magazine: Tsunamis from the sky

February 24, 2014

Alexandria, VA - On a beautiful, clear June morning in 1954, a massive wave suddenly swept out of Lake Michigan killing at least seven people along the Chicago waterfront. At the time, the wave was attributed to a storm that had earlier passed over northern Lake Michigan, but how it came to swamp faraway Chicago, with no warning, was not understood.

The Great Lakes, along with the Mediterranean, Japan and many other parts of the world, have a long history of such waves, which have characteristics similar to tsunamis triggered by earthquakes or landslides.

Only recently, however, have scientists unraveled how a storm can create and propagate these far-traveling waves -- called meteorological tsunamis or meteotsunamis. The waves, which arise out of a complex interplay of storm speed, wave dynamics and ocean-bottom bathymetry, may be less common than seismic tsunamis, but they can still be destructive and deadly.

EARTH Magazine talks to scientists trying to forecast meteotsunamis and develop a warning system for coastal residents, particularly along the U.S. East Coast, where in June 2013, a series of large waves swept into Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, knocking fishermen off jetties, and sending scuba divers over a breakwater, causing some injuries.
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