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10 Tsunamis That Changed History

Destructive change

The tsunami of April 1, 1946 broke over Pier No. 1 in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii. The man in the foreground (lower left) became one of the 159 deaths on the islands.

The tsunami of April 1, 1946 broke over Pier No. 1 in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii. The man in the foreground (lower left) became one of the 159 deaths on the islands.
(Image credit: NOAA)

A new focus on tsunami hazards since the 2004 Indonesia earthquake and its killer waves has heightened awareness of tsunami's cultural and historic influence.

Earthquakes, underwater landslides and volcanoes can trigger tsunamis, sending walls of water rushing inland when they reach the shore. Until recently, these were unexpected deluges, striking without warning. The destruction wrought by the giant waves changed entire cultures.

Storegga - 8150 B.C.

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

3D image of massive Storegga slide possibly caused by a gas hydrate melt-down -- resulted in a tsunami that drowned Scotland 7,000 years ago.
(Image credit: Deep East 2001, NDWP, NOAA/OER.)

Sparked by a giant underwater landslide, the Storegga tsunami started in the Norwegian Sea, off the coast of Norway. Tsunami deposits were found in Scotland as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) inland of current shorelines.

The tsunami destroyed a land bridge called Doggerland that linked Great Britain with Denmark and the Netherlands, severing people on the island from Europe for good. Afterward, Mesolithic culture developed independently from Europe unless settlers arrived by boat.

Polynesia - 2800 B.C.

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

Examples of local, regional, and distant tsunami sources in the Pacific.
(Image credit: James Goff, University of New South Wales)

A tsunami had a chilling effect on Polynesian culture, some researchers suggest. Triggered by an earthquake on the Tonga-Kermadec subduction zone, tsunami deposits are found on Pacific islands around 2800 B.C. Before the tsunami, Polynesians had rapidly expanded eastwards across the Pacific to the Tonga-Samoa archipelago. Afterward, they stopped for 2,000 years.

Crete - 1600 B.C.

Remnants of Santorini Volcano in Aegean Sea

Santorini Volcano in the Aegean Sea, seen in this NASA satellite image, was the site of one of the largest eruptions in the last 10,000 years. The explosion of the volcano removed so much magma from below the Earth that the volcano collapsed, producing a large crater, or caldera.
(Image credit: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)

The enormous explosive eruption at Thera volcano in Greece sent a monster wave sweeping into the island of Crete. Archaeological evidence suggests the one-two punch of ash and water had a lethal effect on the Minoan culture. The same wave could also be responsible for the legend of Atlantis.

Polynesia - 1450

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

(Image credit: Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)

In New Zealand, two 15th-century tsunamis swept away settlements along the coast. Prior to the waves, the Maori were a sophisticated Stone Age society, said James Goff, a tsunami geologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. After the drenchings, the culture shifted, become more war-like and focused on protecting resources. Similar transformations occurred on islands throughout the Southwest Pacific, Goff said

Lisbon - 1775

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

An engraving of a tsunami following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
(Image credit: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Tens of thousands of Portuguese people who survived the Lisbon earthquake on Nov. 1, 1755 were killed by the tsunami that followed. The 49-foot-high (15 meters) waves swept away people who had escaped to the harbor for safety. The destruction influenced Western philosophers and writers from Kant to Voltaire, who references the event in his novel "Candide."

Virgin Islands - 1867

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

Stranded at Frederikstad, St. Croix, Virgin Islands on 4 March 1868 after an unsuccessful launching attempt. She had been washed ashore by a tidal wave on 18 November 1867 and was finally refloated on 11 May 1868. Monongahela had received a bowsprit in her 1865 refit, but retains her original straight bow.
(Image credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center.)

A tsunami struck the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas on Nov. 18, 1867.Three U.S. shipswere damaged by the waves. The ships, all former Civil War vessels, were there to meet with an envoy from the king of Denmark in hopes of building a naval base and purchasing the future U.S. Virgin Islands. One, the Monongahela, was beached at St. Croix by a 30-foot (9 meters) wave. The earthquake and tsunami, plus a hurricane only three weeks earlier, meant the deal to purchase the Virgin Islands fell through.

Krakatoa - 1883

impact of tsunamis, tsunami lessions, disaster preparation

(Image credit: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The collapse of Krakatoa volcano on Aug. 27 sent a series of awesome tsunamis around the world. Some island areas were never resettled, including the Ujung Kulon nature reserve in Java. In 1883, both Java and Sumatra were Dutch spice colonies, shipping fragrant seeds back to Europe. After the eruption and tsunami, the Dutch abandoned their colonies and Islamic fundamentalism swept the islands.

Alaska - 1946

The tsunami of April 1, 1946 broke over Pier No. 1 in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii. The man in the foreground (lower left) became one of the 159 deaths on the islands.

The tsunami of April 1, 1946 broke over Pier No. 1 in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii. The man in the foreground (lower left) became one of the 159 deaths on the islands.
(Image credit: NOAA)

On April 1, parts of Hilo, Hawaii, were destroyed by a series of waves from an earthquake and landslide in Alaska. The tsunami resulted in the creation of a tsunami warning system known as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), established in 1949. The tsunami is known as the April Fools Day Tsunami in Hawaii due to people thinking the warnings were an April Fools prank.

Sumatra - 2004

In this shot, water rushes ashore in Sri Lanka during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The tsunami killed more than 220,000 people around the world and prompted U.S. officials to focus on tsunami preparedness closer to home.

In this shot, water rushes ashore in Sri Lanka during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The tsunami killed more than 220,000 people around the world and prompted U.S. officials to focus on tsunami preparedness closer to home.
(Image credit: NASA)

The Dec. 26 Indian Ocean earthquake triggered a series of lethal tsunamis that killed approximately 230,000 people, making it the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. Its size shocked the world, and brought a renewed focus on understanding the future risk from killer waves. Thanks to these new studies, scientists are beginning to connect cultural shifts in Indian and Pacific Ocean societies with great tsunamis.

Tohoku - 2011

Misawa, Japan, cleanup by U.S. Navy

A sailor assigned to Naval Air Facility Misawa hauls debris during a cleanup effort at the Misawa Fishing Port, located in the eastern Aomori Prefecture in the T?hoku region of northeastern Japan. More than 90 sailors from Naval Air Facility Misawa volunteered to help Misawa City employees and members of the community begin to clean up after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck the area.
(Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devon Dow/Released)

On March 11, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake produced a tsunami 33 feet (10 m) high along Japan's northeastern coast. The wave caused widespread devastation and precipitated a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. As a result, Japan's ruling party has pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2030, a challenge for the island, which must find land to build new power production sites.