A WARNING has been issued by scientists about “devastating tsunamis” caused by climate change.
New research suggests that rising sea levels – caused by global warming – significantly increase the threat of giant killer waves.
Tsunamis are one of the deadliest natural disasters – and experts say they could get even worse.
A new Science Advances study modelled the impact of tsunamis based on sea level increases, and discovered worrying results.
It found that rising sea levels allowed tsunamis to reach much further inland, significantly increasing the risk of floods.
This means small tsunamis that might not be deadly today could wreak havoc in the future.
“Our research shows that sea-level rise can significantly increase the tsunami hazard, which means that smaller tsunamis in the future can have the same adverse impacts as big tsunamis would today,” said Robert Weiss, a professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech.
Weiss worked with the Earth Observatory of Singapore, the Nanyang Technological University and the National Taiwan University to map the dangers of future tsunamis.
He explained that small tsunamis generated by earthquakes occur frequently around the world, and may eventually be far more hazardous.
The researchers created computer-simulated tsunamis at current sea levels, and then compared them to the same simulations with sea-level increases of 1.5 feet and 3 feet.
Weiss’ simulations charted the effect of a tsunami in Macau, a densely populated region in South China.
The area is generally considered safe from the threat of tsunamis. At current sea levels, an earthquake would need to measure a magnitude of 8.8 or higher to cause “widespread tsunami inundation” in Macau.
What causes tsunamis?
Here are the facts…
- Tsunami is a Japanese word used to describe huge waves – generally on oceans, but sometimes in lakes or large rivers
- Ocean tsunamis are caused by sudden motions, which displace a large amount of water
- This is typically an earthquake, but it could also be a volcanic eruption or underwater landslide
- A huge impact into water – like a large landslide or meteor – can also cause tsunamis
- When an earthquake happens, huge tectonic plates crunch together
- When the “snap” eventually happens, this gives a large shove to water
- This creates a tsunami that travels very quickly across the open oceans
- As the ocean becomes shallower, the tsunami wave is forced upwards
- This means tsunami waves typically grow very quickly in height (and slow down) as they approach the shallow shorelines near land
- Tsunamis are typically a series of waves, rather than one single wave
- As they approach land, these waves get closer together
- One of the best ways to spot an incoming tsunami is a sudden retreat of coastal water
- If the tide goes out very quickly, it’s a telling sign that something is wrong
- What you’re actually seeing is the trough of the incoming tsunami wave – on a huge scale
- The initial tsunami impact can be deadly
- But tsunami flooding is also highly dangerous to life, damaging buildings, destroying infrastructure, spreading waste and disease, and drowning people
But with a sea-level rise of 1.5 feet, the frequency of tsunami-induced flooding in the simulation rose by 2.4 times.
And for the 3-foot increase, the frequency of flooding rose to 4.7 times.
“We found that the increased inundation frequency was contributed by earthquakes of smaller magnitudes, which posed no threat at current sea level, but could cause significant inundation at higher sea-level conditions,” said Lin Lin Li, a senior research fellow at the Earth Observatory of Singapore.
Scientists used 5,000 tsunami simulations generated from “synthetic earthquakes” in the Manila Trench.
The Manila Trench is the main hazard point for large tsunamis in the South China Sea.
It hasn’t experienced an earthquake larger than magnitude 7.8 since the 16th century.
But study co-author Wang Yu said that the region shares many similarities to the source areas that led to the deadly 2004 Indonesian earthquake, and Japan’s 2011 quake – both of which led to huge tsunamis.
In the future, it’s possible that smaller-magnitude earthquakes could instigate similar events – all thanks to rising sea levels.
Killer tsunamis of the 21st century
Here are all the tsunamis we’ve seen since the year 2000…
- 2004 (Indian Ocean) – An oceanic earthquake of magnitude 9.3 triggered a series of tsunamis on boxing day, killing nearly 280,000 people. It’s one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, and the deadliest tsunami ever recorded. Its initial surge height measured 108 feet.
- 2006 (South of Java Island) – This tsunami was caused by a 7.7-magnitude Indian Ocean earthquake that hit beaches at a height of six feet. Over 800 people were reported missing or dead.
- 2006 (Kuril Islands) – An 8.3-magnitude earthquake generated a small tsunami that led to zero fatalities.
- 2007 (Soloman Islands) – A 36-foot tsunami was created by a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, killing 52 people.
- 2007 (Chile) – A large earthquakle led to major landslides that created six-metre-high waves. 10 people were reported dead or missing, and some infrastructure was damaged.
- 2007 (British Columbia) – A landslide entered Chehalis Lake, creating a large lake tsunami that destroyed campgrounds and vegetation.
- 2009 (Samoa) – An underwater earthquake measuring an 8.1-magnitude generated a 46-foot tsunami that killed 189 people.
- 2010 (Chile) – An 8.8-magnitude earthquake near Chile created a large off-shore tsunami. The earthquake was deadly, but the tsunami was not.
- 2010 (Sumatra) – A 7.7-magnitude earthquake created a tsunami that killed at least 408 people.
- 2011 (New Zealand) – A 6.3-magnitude earthquake shifted 30million tonnes of ice into Tasman Lake, generating 11-foot-high tsunami waves.
- 2011 (Japan) – A devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake created a 33-foot tsunami along Japan’s Pacific coast. The official death toll stands at 18,550.
- 2013 (Soloman Islands) – A tsunami measuring around 3-feet high was created by an 8.0-magnitude earthquake.
- 2014 (Iceland) – A large landslide generated a huge 100-foot tsunami that killed no one.
- 2015 (Chile) – A 16-foot earthquake in Chile creating a 16-foot tsunami.
- 2016 (New Zealand) – A large 7.8-magnitudfe earthquake generated a 2.5-metre tsunami that took no lives.
- 2017 (Greenland) – A large landslide fell 3,300 feet into Greenland’s Karrat fjord, creating a tsunami that killed four people. The tsunami initially had a height of 300-foot, but was lower when it hit the Nuugaatsiaq settlement.
It’s estimated that sea levels in the Macau region will increase by 1.5 feet by 2060, and by 3 feet by 2100.
“The South China Sea is an excellent starting point for such a study because it is an ocean with rapid sea-level rise and also the location of many mega cities with significant worldwide consequences if impacted,” explained Weiss.
“Sea-level rise needs to be taken into account for planning purposes, for example for reclamation efforts but also for designing protective measures, such as seawalls or green infrastructure.”
He went on: “What we assumed to be the absolute worst case a few years ago now appears to be modest for what is predicted in some locations.
We need to study local sea-level change more comprehensively in order to create better predictive models that help to make investments in infrastructure that are or near sustainable.”
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Sea levels aren’t just rising in the South China Sea – they’re rising globally.
The rise is largely attributed to global climate change: partly due to warming seas, causing “thermal expansion” of the water, and partly due to melting ice sheets and glaciers on land.
It’s estimated that we’ll see a rise of between 1 and 8 feet during the 21st century.
Do you think the end is nigh? Let us know in the comments!
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