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Oceanography And Marine Science

Can You Surf a Tsunami Wave? Exploring the Possibilities and Risks

Can you actually surf a tsunami wave?  Some people may wonder about the actual answer to this question. Tsunamis are one of the most destructive natural disasters, and they are caused by underwater earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or landslides. When a tsunami wave approaches the shore, it can reach heights of up to 100 feet and travel at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour – truly one of the most fearsome and dangerous natural disasters.

Despite the dangers, some people have attempted to surf tsunami waves in the past. However, it is not recommended, and it is extremely risky. The main reason?  Tsunami waves are not like regular waves, and they are not suitable for surfing.  Tsunamis do not actually have a face to ride – they are more similar to tides in the way that they rush in and out.

They are much larger, faster, and more powerful, and they can cause massive destruction. In fact, surfing a tsunami wave is not only dangerous, but it is also illegal in many countries. Therefore, it is important to understand the risks associated with surfing a tsunami wave and to avoid attempting it at all costs.

Surfing a Tsunami Wave

Can You Surf a Tsunami Wave?

Besides the logistical impossibility, attempting to surf a tsunami would be exceptionally hazardous. Tsunamis are accompanied by a potent current of rushing water filled with a deadly assortment of debris—everything from trees and cars to building materials can be swept up in the wave. Getting hit by such debris could cause severe injury or even death.

Furthermore, a tsunami is not a single wave but a series of waves, known as a wave train. These waves can arrive minutes to hours apart, inundating the coastline multiple times and often with increasing intensity. Even if one could theoretically ride the first wave, they would likely be swept up by the following waves.

The sheer power, speed, and unpredictability of tsunamis make them unsuitable and far too dangerous for surfing. They are destructive forces of nature that require serious safety measures. If you ever find yourself in a situation where a tsunami warning has been issued, it is crucial to evacuate to higher ground immediately and stay far away from the water until authorities declare it safe. The myth of tsunami surfing is just that—a myth—and attempting to do so is a perilous undertaking that could have catastrophic consequences.

Tsunamis don’t really look like the exaggerated curling waves you may see in pictures and Hollywood movies.  If you watch the following video of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, you’ll quickly realize that there’s not much to surf – it’s more like a tidal surge pushing water inland.

But What If?

What tends to make this conversation come up from time to time in the surfing community, however, is that fact that some of the waves formed by tsunami activity look potentially surfable.  Depending on the underwater bathymetry, the surge of water from a tsunami may make a few large, peeling waves as has been seen in some photos and videos.

In a thought experiment, you could theoretically get dropped via helicopter and ride this initial peeling wave of the tsunami that hits the harbor, kick out, and get picked up by the same helicopter before you are annihilated by the remaining destruction.  What do you think?

Japan Tsunami 3-11-2011Japan Tsunami 3-11-2011

The same could be said about this wave caused by the 2004 tsunami here – technically possible?  Maybe.  Deadly?  Quite likely.  It’s hard to say how fast these waves are traveling and if the friction of the surfboard on the surface of the water would simply be too slow to keep up.  Perhaps a hydrofoil surfboard may be the answer?

Tsunami 2004 - Ko Lanta, ThailandTsunami 2004 – Ko Lanta, Thailand

Dangers of Surfing a Tsunami Wave

Attempting to surf a tsunami wave is not only dangerous but can also be deadly. The sheer force of the water can easily overpower even the most experienced big wave surfers. In addition, the water column created by the wave can cause extreme turbulence, making it difficult to stay on a surfboard.

Even if a surfer were to somehow manage to catch a ride on a tsunami wave, the tail end of the wave could be just as dangerous. As the wave moves inland, it can cause massive destruction, including flooding, debris, and even fires.

Surfing a Tsunami: Myth vs. Reality

Despite the dangers and impossibility of surfing a tsunami wave, there have been stories of surfers attempting to do so. One famous example is Felipe Pomar, a Peruvian surfer who claimed to have surfed a tsunami wave in Peru on October 3, 1974.  His harrowing account is gripping even if the authenticity or accuracy of what he actually surfed is somewhat disputed.

In reality, the best way to survive a tsunami is to evacuate to higher ground as quickly as possible. Tsunami waves are not something to be taken lightly, and attempting to surf one is not only dangerous but also foolish. While big wave surfers may be able to ride some of the biggest waves in the world, a tsunami wave is a force of nature that should be respected and avoided at all costs.

Understanding Tsunamis

What is a Tsunami?

A tsunami is a series of ocean waves with very long wavelengths (typically several hundred kilometers) caused by large-scale disturbances of the ocean, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or landslides. These waves can travel across entire ocean basins and cause significant damage when they reach the shore.

Causes of Tsunamis

Tsunamis are most commonly caused by large earthquakes that occur under the ocean floor. When an earthquake occurs, the seafloor can be displaced vertically, which in turn displaces the water column above it. This displacement creates a series of waves that travel outward from the epicenter of the earthquake.

Other causes of tsunamis include volcanic eruptions and landslides. Volcanic eruptions can create tsunamis when they cause underwater landslides or when they generate large amounts of gas that causes the water to become less dense. Landslides can also create tsunamis when they occur near the coast or in the ocean.

Tsunami Waves

Tsunami waves are different from normal ocean waves. Normal ocean waves are created by wind, and their wavelengths are typically only a few meters long. Tsunami waves, on the other hand, can have wavelengths that are hundreds of kilometers long.

When a tsunami wave approaches the shore, it can cause a surge of water that can flood coastal areas. The height of the surge depends on a number of factors, including the size of the tsunami wave, the shape of the coastline, and the depth of the water near the shore.

It is important to note that tsunamis are not the same as tidal waves, which are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. Tidal waves are much smaller than tsunamis and are not generally considered to be a significant threat to human life.  Although “tidal wave” is sometimes used in pop culture interchangeably with tsunami, they are not the same thing scientifically.

Understanding tsunamis is crucial for anyone living near the coast. While they are relatively rare, they can cause significant damage and loss of life when they do occur. It is important to be aware of the causes of tsunamis and to be prepared in the event of a tsunami warning. The USGS provides valuable resources for tsunami education and preparedness.

reuters photo - japan tsunami

Frequently Asked Questions

Why can’t you surf a tsunami?

Surfing a tsunami is not possible because tsunamis are not like normal waves. Tsunamis are caused by large displacements of water, such as earthquakes or landslides, and can travel at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour. This means that a tsunami wave is not just one wave, but a series of waves, and the water can rise up to 100 feet or more. The sheer force and speed of a tsunami wave would make it impossible to surf.

Can you swim under a tsunami wave?

No, you cannot swim under a tsunami wave. The force of the water is too strong and can drag you along with it. It is recommended to evacuate to higher ground as soon as possible if a tsunami warning has been issued.

What happens if you surf a tsunami?

Attempting to surf a tsunami wave would be extremely dangerous and potentially deadly. The sheer force and speed of a tsunami wave would make it impossible to surf. If you were to try to surf a tsunami wave, you would likely be swept away and drowned.

How do you survive a tsunami while surfing?

The best way to survive a tsunami while surfing is to evacuate to higher ground as soon as possible if a tsunami warning has been issued. If you are caught in a tsunami wave, try to grab onto something that floats, such as a surfboard, and hold on tight. It is important to stay calm and conserve your energy until the wave passes.

What is the safest place to be during a tsunami?

The safest place to be during a tsunami is on higher ground, at least 100 feet above sea level or two miles inland. If you are unable to evacuate to higher ground, seek shelter in a sturdy building on the highest floor possible. Avoid areas near the coast or low-lying areas that could be flooded by the tsunami wave.

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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