Glossary of Tsunami Terminology

Glossary of Tsunami Terminology Welcome to our glossary of tsunami terms. This section will help you understand the different words and phrases that might come up when talking about tsunamis. We compiled tsunami terminology useful to the average student, teacher or tsunami enthusiast. Bookmark this page as this will be handy as read about tsunamis and come across unfamiliar words.


  • Arrival time - The time of arrival of the first wave of a tsunami.
  • Bore - A wave with a steep vertical front. A tsunami wave may form a bore as it approaches shore.
  • Continental shelf - The continental shelf is the portion of the ocean floor closest to land. It slopes gradually underneath the water, before meeting up with the continental slope, which then makes a sharp descent to the deep ocean floor. When a tsunami wave reaches the continental shelf it becomes most dangerous, because the sudden loss of water depth pushes the waves to their greatest heights.
  • Crest - The crest of a wave is its highest point. Tsunami waves have been recorded at over 60 meters, but even waves of a meter can cause damage.
  • Drawback - Drawback is when the ocean recedes from land before a tsunami strikes. It is one of the natural warning signs of an approaching tsunami, but does not always happen.
  • Distant source tsunami - A tsunami that is generated from a distance source, traveling a great distance across the ocean before hitting another shore.
  • Earthquake - An earthquake is a sudden shaking of the Earth's crust, which is its outermost, rocky layer.
  • Epicenter - The epicenter is the point on the Earth's surface directly above the place that an earthquake occurred. It is one of the indicators, along with magnitude and type of fault motion, of whether a tsunami will be propagated as a result of an earthquake.
  • Evacuation zone - Area that should be evacuated prior to the arrival of a tsunami.
  • Frequency - The number of times a wave is produced within a certain time period. For example, there might be 3 tsunami waves over the period of one hour.
  • Inundation area - Normally dry land area that has been, or is predicted to be, flooded by a tsunami, measured horizontally landward from the shore.
  • Inundation line - The demarcation line between the inundation area and the safe zone.
  • Leading wave - The first tsunami wave to arrive on a shore.
  • Local tsunami - A tsunami that quickly reaches a shoreline close to the source of the earthquake or landslide. It does not have to travel far, so there is little or no warning of its arrival. Local tsunamis often cause the greatest loss of life.
  • Magnitude - Magnitude describes the energy release of an earthquake as measured by the moment magnitude scale. People normally don’t feel earthquakes that have a magnitude of less than 3.0. It usually takes an undersea earthquake of 7.5 or greater magnitude to generate a tsunami.
  • Plate - The crust of the Earth is broken into sections called plates (also known as tectonic plates), which are enormous parts of the crust that float atop the soft mantle. It is the movement of these plates that causes earthquakes.
  • Ring of Fire - The Ring of Fire is an area that surrounds the Pacific Ocean and is high in seismic and volcanic activity, both of which can cause tsunamis.
  • Runup - Runup is the vertical height a tsunami wave reaches above a reference sea level.
  • Safe zone - An area that should not be reached by the water from a tsunami, either by virtue of its elevation or by its distance from the shore.
  • Sea level - Sea level is the normal level of the sea's surface, halfway between mean high and low tide levels.
  • Seismograph - Also called a seismometer, this piece of equipment records the motion of the ground during an earthquake, and is used to calculate the magnitude of the earthquake.
  • Subduction earthquake - Subduction refers to the action of one plate sliding underneath another. Although this is normal, sometimes a portion of the underlying plate gets stuck. When it finally slips free, it results in an earthquake. Most tsunamis are caused by subduction zone earthquakes.
  • Subduction zone - A subduction zone is an area where one plate is being pushed beneath another plate. When these zones are located in or near the ocean, the tsunami hazard will be higher. The Pacific Northwest and Alaska are located along subduction zones.
  • Submarine landslide - An underwater landslide. Depending on the location and amount of displaced water, a submarine landslide can trigger a significant local source tsunami.
  • Teletsunami - A tsunami that originates from a source more than 1,000 km (620 mi) away or three hours' travel from the area of interest, sometimes travelling across an ocean.
  • Tidal wave - A tsunami wave is sometimes incorrectly called a tidal wave. Tsunamis have no relationship with the tide.
  • Travel time - Time required for the first tsunami wave to travel from its source to a given point on a coastline.
  • Tsunami - A series of traveling waves of extremely long wavelength and period, generated by the sudden displacement of water associated with earthquakes occurring below or near the ocean floor, volcanic eruptions, or large underwater landslides.
  • Tsunami Warning - A tsunami may have been generated and could be close to your area.
  • Tsunami Watch - A tsunami has not yet been verified but could exist and may be as little as an hour away.
  • Tsunamigenic earthquake - An earthquake capable of generating a tsunami.
  • Tsunami emergency - A serious and often dangerous situation involving tsunamis.
  • Tsunami hazard - The probability that a tsunami of a particular size will strike a particular section of coast.
  • Trough - The trough of a wave is its lowest point.
  • Wave - A disturbance on the surface of a liquid body, as the sea or a lake, in the form of a moving ridge or swell. Most waves are caused by the wind.
  • Wavelength - The wavelength of a wave is the distance between two waves, measured from crest to crest or from trough to trough.
  • Wave Period - The amount of time between two specific and successive waves. A tsunami wave period can range from 5 minutes to several hours.
  • Wrap around effect - Tsunami waves can bend around islands and bays, making all coastline areas in the vicinity vulnerable.