Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tsunami strikes the East Coast.

I don't know if many people know about this. But apparently a small tsunami hit Narragansett Bay (on the north side of Rhode Island Sound) on June 13 last month.

I've known about this for a few weeks. However I wanted to talk to NOAA and others about it first. I haven't heard back from Brian McNoldy from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science; if I do, I will amend this post to include what he has to say.
Anyway on to the post.

Instrument readings provide evidence that on June 13 at 4 p.m. a tsunami hit Rhode Island. The uncharacteristic tidal flow stretched from South Carolina to Maine, affecting sea levels and causing some minor damage along parts of the  eastern seaboard. In fact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says tsunami-like conditions were observed June 13 at more than 30 tide gauges and one DART buoy, monitored by the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (WCATWC) along the East Coast, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.

If you remember, we had a low-end derecho  on Wednesday evening June 12th-Thursday June 13th.

There were widespread severe thunderstorms over the Midwest on the  late evening of the 12th. Just before Midnight. The squall line that developed caused a few  significant wind damage reports in Indiana. The line became more organized and moved east across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, reaching the Jersey Shore about 11am Thursday morning.

You might be wondering what does a derecho and a tsunami have to do with each other? Well to answer that, "a straight line of thunderstorms - called a derecho - apparently triggered a tidal wave on June 13", a University of Rhode Island scientist told The Providence Journal. 

The idea being, Once the derecho was out of the range of East Coast radar it may have developed into something much more organized, with much stronger winds. Due to the effect of the storm being over the warmer ocean waters; the storm could have developed downdraft winds over the Atlantic ocean, causing some kind of  tsunami like wave.

 The wave the storm supposedly  pushed would have taken several hours to move back to the coast. This is supported by tidal gauges which showed the wave  moved a lot slower than a traditional earthquake based tsunami wave.   Wind will not push a wave as fast as a jolt from a rock fault under the surface.

WCATWC  officials  say the source of the tsunami is very “complex” and “still under a review.” However, they also point out  that "the earlier storm system that struck the area was a possible cause."

WCATWC wrote in their report, "The event occurred in close conjunction with a weather system labeled by the National Weather Service as a low-end derecho which propagated from west to east over the New Jersey shore just before the tsunami." I will come back to the subject of storm caused tsunami like waves later.

After hearing several reports from witnesses, NOAA officials confirmed that a tsunami had indeed struck the area that day. Here are a few of the reports, I've seen.

In Wickford Harbor, the swift ebb and flow of the tides pushed boats around with enough pressure to pull a cleat from a dock and rip out three stanchions, a Wickford Yacht Club employee told the Providence Journal.

In another incident, officials say a man named Brian Coen was on his boat fishing near the mouth of the Barnegat Inlet. Coen noticed that there was  an outgoing tide with strong currents coming towards him. According to Coen, the heavy waves continued for about two minutes until the rocks in the submerged breakwater were exposed, forcing Coen to back his boat out of the area.

A few minutes later Coen spotted a large wave, approximately 6-feet from crest to trough, coming across the inlet. The wave was so powerful that it swept two people off a rock jetty and into the water on Long Beach Island. They were both rescued from the water.  Coen also said, he had two friends who were scuba diving off the boat. He says these people were pulled a few hundred yards across the inlet by the wave.  Fortunately everyone involved in the incident only had non-life threatening injuries.

How Traditional Tsunamis Form:
First, I want to clear up a common misinterpretation  most people have about water waves of all kinds.  A waves is not the movement of water.  Instead, they are the movement of energy through water.

This concept of energy is very important because what distinguishes tsunamis from ordinary waves is the vast difference in the amount of energy that is carried.  Ordinary waves are made by the constant force of wind friction along the surface of the water.  The friction takes energy from the wind and transfers it into the water, because of this we see waves.  The longer and faster the wind blows impacts the amount of  energy going into the waves. So the stronger the wind the higher the waves.

 In contrast, a tsunami gets its energy by way of an intense direct impulse of force.

The Indonesian tsunami of December 2004 was caused by an earthquake. The earthquake lifted the seafloor up quite a few meters, which lifted the water above it the same amount. The energy moved from its epicenter outward at hundreds of miles per hour.  Clearly the water wasn't moving at that speed,  instead the energy moving through the water at that speed.

Most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes.  However, they can be formed by anything that causes an intense direct impulse of force; such as a landslide, underwater volcanic eruption, or even a meteorite. 

The NOAA tsunami website can be found here.

Hurricane caused waves:

As I just stated, wind energy is transferred to water, becoming water energy. The stronger the wind and the longer it blows, the higher the waves. So it should be no surprise that hurricanes can cause huge waves.

David Wang and his colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory in Mississippi say, they have evidence that Hurricane Ivan a Cape Verde hurricane; that moved into the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) in September of 2004, generated waves greater than 40 meters high from crest to trough, an incredible 131 plus feet from crest to trough.

William Teague, one of David Wang's colleagues said, "These are the largest wave heights ever recorded with instruments in US waters" He went on to say "They're larger than we ever thought they would be." Ivan wasn't even a particularly large hurricane, he added.

Something else that is interesting. Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory, based at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, think that hurricanes can pile up sediment off shore on the continental shelf.

The researchers setup and secured six sets of instruments for measuring water depth, pressure and currents on the seabed in Hurricane Ivan's path. At two of these spots, the storm scoured about 11 inches of sediment from the sea floor. The before mentioned William Teague said  "All of the moorings were deeper immediately after the passage of Ivan."

There are eyewitness accounts of similarly enormous waves at sea. In 1995, the luxury liner  Queen Elizabeth 2 survived an encounter with one about 30 meters (98 feet) high in the North Atlantic, and six years later a similar wave smashed windows on the cruise ship Bremen in the South Atlantic and nearly sank it.

Shuyi Chen, a specialist on computer modeling of hurricanes at the University of Miami, said the latest hurricane models predict such waves should occur "very often". The findings are consistent with less accurate measurements made from ships, she adds.

It is now widely suspected that these rogue waves, generated by wind and currents, might explain the mysterious, regular disappearance of large ships at sea. Oceanographers have only recently come to accept that such rogue waves might not be  extreme rare events. But could be much more common than they previously thought.  

Meteotsunamis caused waves:

As I said I would come back to the subject of storm caused tsunami like waves.

Meteotsunamis are  weather-related and caused by storms, the storms don't have to be overhead, in fact the storms can be hundreds of miles away. These storm-driven waves don't effect or inflect damage on an entire continent's coastline.  They are confided to  narrow harbors and bays  The word Tsunami is a Japanese word that means harbor wave. 

So while a Meteotsunami isn't technically a tsunami it is very tsunami like. In fact, meteotsunamis have similar frequencies to the more classic tsunamis, except they occur in specific bays and inlets

As a kid and teenager, I was on the Great lakes a lot, (I still am) So the concept is not really all that new to me..... Meteotsunamis  can and do strike the Great Lakes and along the U.S. coastline.

Meteotsunamis are quite dangerous. It is now known that a meteotsunami killed seven people on the Chicago shoreline of Lake Michigan  on 26 June 1954. There were actually two recorded in Lake Michigan in June 1954. An 18-foot-tall (5 m) wave took out cars in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1992, and a 12-foot-high  wave struck Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 2008.

In order to get a meteotsunami you need three general things to be in place.

1). A meteorological disturbance

These disturbances can be such things as atmospheric gravity waves, passage of strong cold fronts, very intense squall lines (like the June 13th low-end derecho ).

2). Resonance.

Resonance is when something oscillates with greater amplitude at some frequencies than at others. In the case of  meteotsunamis...it's the difference between the speed of the meteorological disturbance and deep water wave speed.

3). Amplifying characteristics of a harbor, bay or inlet.

Many times, Bays, harbors, and inlets exhibit a quick change in bottom elevation. If they are especially V shaped the waves are funneled in towards shore and energy density increases the height of the wave.

If you want more information on meteotsunamis here are two sites.



So what caused  the tsunami along the East Coast?

Here is what I think caused the June 13 tsunami.

As I said above, I showed  how hurricanes can deposit sediment  and dislodge this same sediment from the seabed.  I also said hurricanes can cause a big surge and big waves.   But was the derecho the cause as some think?  I think the derecho may have been the spark, not the cause. I think Super-storm Sandy piled up sediment on the continental shelf; When the derecho came along it was just enough to dislodge the sediment, which provoked a  landslide on the continental shelf. While Sandy was a Cat 1 hurricane her pressure was equivalent to a Cat 3, she was also the largest (in coverage) storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. So there is no doubt that she was very powerful.

I base the fact that it was a tsunami caused by a landslide on the NOAA report. The report stated that  tsunami-like conditions were observed June 13 at more than 30 tide gauges and one DART buoy, along the East Coast, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.

I pointed out above that Meteotsunamis occur in  bays, harbors, and inlets and don't  impact entire. coastlines. I do think places like Narragansett Bay amplified the effects of the tsunami.

So while tsunamis are very rare on the Atlantic East Coast. They do occur and will occur again in the future. The next one might not be so minor.



  1. Thank you Chris. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Ah Rebecca, another amazing write-up. I found this article to be very interesting. Thank you for sharing this with Weather Talk. I meant to share it on my page for everyone to read yesterday, and somehow I forgot. It's shared now.

    Hope you and Mark have a wonderful weekend!

    All the best,
    Greg Berman
    Weather Talk

  3. I glad you liked it and found it informative. Colorado doesn't have to worry about Tsunamis... So wasn't sure if your readers would like it or not.... but I hope they do....



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