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Exploring science behind tsunamis

There is no known way to stop the massive wall of water known as a tsunami, but early warnings are possible from a special system of six buoys that monitor the giant waves in the Pacific Ocean. There's no sophisticated system in the Indian Ocean.

"There was a lot of information about the earthquake, and little information about the tsunami," says Eddie Bernard of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Scientists in this country debated for two-and-a-half hours if the earthquake had spawned a tsunami. And if it had, there was another problem: the countries in the region have no warning systems.

"None of the measures were in place that, even if they had known, could they have actually done effectively to save lives," says Bernard.

Often called a tidal wave, a tsunami has nothing to do with the tide. The wave, like the one near Indonesia, is created by a violent underwater disturbance. In this case, an earthquake set things in motion, but a landslide, volcanic eruption and even a meteor strike can produce a tsunami.

The rapid underwater shift creates causes a violent reaction as millions of gallons of seawater are displaced. Waves radiate in all directions, traveling at the speed of a commercial jet. But as the waves approach shallower water — be it a populated coast or a remote area — they slow down and grow in size. In the worst cases, it produces a wall of water 20 to 30 feet high that rushes ashore.

On America’s west coast, including Alaska and Hawaii, there are disaster plans. But tsunamis are not limited to those regions — one stretching from Canada to Boston was recorded in 1929.

Some fear a monster tsunami could some day strike from New York to Miami. What could cause that? Seismic activity off the Canary Islands — 4,000 miles away.

Would there be warnings? As of today, there's no tsunami monitoring system in place along the Atlantic coast.