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Tsunamis and Surf

Tsunamis are unique in their destructive power, but they share many features with other ocean waves. Learn how the two wave types differ, and how ocean waves of all kinds affect New Zealand’s coast.

Ocean waves are a powerful force in the lives of New Zealanders. We like to surf them and swim in them – yet we are also vulnerable to the power of ocean waves. In particular, coastal New Zealand is at high risk of inundation by a tsunami.

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Several tsunamis – particularly those in South-east Asia (2004), Samoa (2009) and Japan (2011) – have focused attention on the destructive power of these waves. New Zealand researchers are actively working to understand how a large tsunami would affect our coast.

For all their destructiveness, tsunamis share many features with surf waves and other water waves. In fact, waves of all kinds (such as water waves, sound waves and electromagnetic radiation) share several fundamental characteristics that can help us understand why they behave the way they do.

In this science story, we look at the similarities and differences between tsunamis and surf waves, and we learn how ocean waves are studied in New Zealand, how early Māori used ocean waves as a guide to navigate across the Pacific and why you should never try to surf a tsunami.