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As we are all now very much aware, tsunamis are water waves that start in the deep ocean, usually because of an underwater earthquake (though tsunamis can also be caused by underwater landslides or volcanoes), and then propagate towards shore. Initially, tsunamis have relatively small amplitude (a metre or so is typical), which would seem to render them as harmless as wind waves. And indeed, tsunamis often pass by ships in deep ocean without anyone on board even noticing.
However, being generated by an event as large as an earthquake, the wavelength of the tsunami is huge – 200 kilometres is typical (in contrast with wind waves, whose wavelengths are typically closer to 100 metres). In particular, the wavelength of the tsunami is far greater than the depth of the ocean (which is typically 2-3 kilometres). As such, even in the deep ocean, the dynamics of tsunamis are essentially governed by the shallow water equations. One consequence of these equations is that the speed of propagation of a tsunami can be approximated by the formula
where is the depth of the ocean, and is the force of gravity. As such, tsunamis in deep water move very fast – speeds such as 500 kilometres per hour (300 miles per hour) are quite typical; enough to travel from Japan to the US, for instance, in less than a day. Ultimately, this is due to the incompressibility of water (and conservation of mass); the massive net pressure (or more precisely, spatial variations in this pressure) of a very broad and deep wave of water forces the profile of the wave to move horizontally at vast speeds. (Note though that this is the phase velocity of the tsunami wave, and not the velocity of the water molecues themselves, which are far slower.)
As the tsunami approaches shore, the depth of course decreases, causing the tsunami to slow down, at a rate proportional to the square root of the depth, as per (1). Unfortunately, wave shoaling then forces the amplitude to increase at an inverse rate governed by Green’s law,
at least until the amplitude becomes comparable to the water depth (at which point the assumptions that underlie the above approximate results break down; also, in two (horizontal) spatial dimensions there will be some decay of amplitude as the tsunami spreads outwards). If one starts with a tsunami whose initial amplitude was at depth and computes the point at which the amplitude and depth become comparable using the proportionality relationship (2), some high school algebra then reveals that at this point, amplitude of a tsunami (and the depth of the water) is about . Thus, for instance, a tsunami with initial amplitude of one metre at a depth of 2 kilometres can end up with a final amplitude of about 5 metres near shore, while still traveling at about ten metres per second (35 kilometres per hour, or 22 miles per hour), and we have all now seen the impact that can have when it hits shore.
While tsunamis are far too massive of an event to be able to control (at least in the deep ocean), we can at least model them mathematically, allowing one to predict their impact at various places along the coast with high accuracy. (For instance, here is a video of the NOAA’s model of the March 11 tsunami, which has matched up very well with subsequent measurements.) The full equations and numerical methods used to perform such models are somewhat sophisticated, but by making a large number of simplifying assumptions, it is relatively easy to come up with a rough model that already predicts the basic features of tsunami propagation, such as the velocity formula (1) and the amplitude proportionality law (2). I give this (standard) derivation below the fold. The argument will largely be heuristic in nature; there are very interesting analytic issues in actually justifying many of the steps below rigorously, but I will not discuss these matters here.