On May 22, 1960, at 3:11 pm (19:11 UTC) the largest earthquake ever recorded by instruments struck southern Chile with a magnitude we now know to be at least 9.5. This earthquake generated a tsunami that traveled through every ocean on earth, though large, dangerous waves only impacted the coastlines around the Pacific Ocean. Chile suffered the greatest impact, with tsunami waves reaching as high as 25 m or 82 ft., killing an estimated 2000 people there. Outside of Chile the tsunami was worst on the opposite side of the planet in Japan, where waves reached as high as 6.3 m or over 20 ft and killed 139 people. In between and halfway across the Pacific Ocean Hawaii suffered the second-worst tsunami in its recorded history--only the Aleutian Islands tsunami of 1946 was worse. It killed 61 people in the town of Hilo with waves reaching as high as 10.7 m or about 35 ft. and all Hawaiian Islands experienced waves well over 1 m or 3 ft. The Philippines also lost 21 people to waves recorded as high as 1.5 m or nearly 5 ft, and two more people died in California from waves reaching 2.2 m or over 7 ft. high. Elsewhere around the Pacific Ocean tsunami waves reached as high as 12.2 m or 40 ft at Pitcairn Island (U.K), 7.0 m or 23 ft. in Russia (Kamchatka), 5.0 m or over 16 ft. in New Zealand, 4.9 m or 16 ft. in (Western) Samoa, 2.4 m or about 8 ft. in French Polynesia, 2.1 m or 7 ft. in Canada, 1.8 m or about 6 ft. in Papua New Guinea, and 1.2 m or about 4 ft. in Mexico. In the United States and it territories 2.4 m or about 8 ft. in American Samoa, 2.3 m or 7.5 ft. in Alaska, and 1.8 m or about 6 ft. in Oregon.
A global tsunami warning system did not exist in 1960 and the Honolulu Magnetic and Seismic Observatory, which would later become the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), did issue tsunami warnings for this earthquake to the State of Hawaii many hours in advance of its arrival (it would take almost 15 hours for the first wave to reach Hawaii). As a result of this tsunami the United Nations would set up the Pacific Tsunami Warning System (PTWS) in 1965 with the Honolulu Observatory as its headquarters.
Today, more than 50 years since the Great Chile Earthquake and the establishment of the PTWS, the PTWC will issue tsunami warnings in minutes, not hours, after a major earthquake occurs, and will forecast how large any resulting tsunami will be as it is still crossing the ocean. The PTWC can also create an animation of a historical tsunami with the same tool that it uses to determine tsunami hazards in real time for any tsunami today: the Real-Time Forecasting of Tsunamis (RIFT) forecast model. The RIFT model takes earthquake information as input and calculates how the waves move through the world’s oceans, predicting their speed, wavelength, and amplitude. This animation shows these values through the simulated motion of the waves and as they travel through the world’s oceans one can also see the distance between successive wave crests (wavelength) as well as their height (half-amplitude) indicated by their color. More importantly, the model also shows what happens when these tsunami waves strike land, the very information that the PTWC needs to issue tsunami hazard guidance for impacted coastlines. From the beginning the animation shows all coastlines covered by colored points. These are initially a blue color like the undisturbed ocean to indicate normal sea level, but as the tsunami waves reach them they will change color to represent the height of the waves coming ashore, and often these values are higher than they were in the deeper waters offshore. The color scheme is based on the PTWC’s warning criteria, with blue-to-green representing no hazard (less than 30 cm or ~1 ft.), yellow-to-orange indicating low hazard with a stay-off-the-beach recommendation (30 to 100 cm or ~1 to 3 ft.), light red-to-bright red indicating significant hazard requiring evacuation (1 to 3 m or ~3 to 10 ft.), and dark red indicating a severe hazard possibly requiring a second-tier evacuation (greater than 3 m or ~10 ft.).
Toward the end of this simulated 48 hours of activity the wave animation will transition to the “energy map” of a mathematical surface representing the maximum rise in sea-level on the open ocean caused by the tsunami, a pattern that indicates that the kinetic energy of the tsunami was not distributed evenly across the oceans but instead forms a highly directional “beam” such that the tsunami was far more severe in the middle of the “beam” of energy than on its sides. This pattern also generally correlates to the coastal impacts; note how those coastlines directly in the “beam” are hit by larger waves than those to either side of it.
Fujii, Y. and K.Satake, Slip Distribution and Seismic Moment of the 2010 and 1960 Chilean Earthquakes Inferred from Tsunami Waveforms and Coastal Geodetic Data, Pure and Applied Geophysics, 170, 1493-1509, 2012
C3 Scale Proportion and Quantity. Students recognize natural objects and observable phenomena exist from the very small to the immensely large. They use standard units to measure and describe physical quantities such as weight, time, temperature, and volume.
C5 Energy and Matter. Students learn matter is made of particles and energy can be transferred in various ways and between objects. Students observe the conservation of matter by tracking matter flows and cycles before and after processes and recognizing the total weight of substances does not change.
C4 Systems and System Models. Students can understand that systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems. They can use models to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems. They can also learn that models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.
C5 Energy and Matter. Students learn matter is conserved because atoms are conserved in physical and chemical processes. They also learn within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter. Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion). The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system.
C3 Scale Proportion and Quantity. Students understand the significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs. They recognize patterns observable at one scale may not be observable or exist at other scales, and some systems can only be studied indirectly as they are too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to observe directly. Students use orders of magnitude to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale. They use algebraic thinking to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth).
C4 Systems and System Models. Students can investigate or analyze a system by defining its boundaries and initial conditions, as well as its inputs and outputs. They can use models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) to simulate the flow of energy, matter, and interactions within and between systems at different scales. They can also use models and simulations to predict the behavior of a system, and recognize that these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in the models. They can also design systems to do specific tasks.
C5 Energy and Matter. Students learn that the total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved. They can describe changes of energy and matter in a system in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system. They also learn that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems. Energy drives the cycling of matter within and between systems. In nuclear processes, atoms are not conserved, but the total number of protons plus neutrons is conserved.
ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems. Four major Earth systems interact. Rainfall helps to shape the land and affects the types of living things found in a region. Water, ice, wind, organisms, and gravity break rocks, soils, and sediments into smaller pieces and move them around
ESS2.B Plate Tectonics & Large Scale Interactions. Earth’s physical features occur in patterns, as do earthquakes and volcanoes. Maps can be used to locate features and determine patterns in those events.
ESS2.C The Roles of Water in Earth's Processes. Most of Earth’s water is in the ocean and much of the Earth’s fresh water is in glaciers or underground.
ESS3.B Natural Hazards. A variety of hazards result from natural processes; humans cannot eliminate hazards but can reduce their impacts.
PS3.A Definitions of Energy. Moving objects contain energy. The faster the object moves, the more energy it has. Energy can be moved from place to place by moving objects, or through sound, light, or electrical currents. Energy can be converted from one form to another form.
PS4.A Wave Properties. Waves are regular patterns of motion, which can be made in water by disturbing the surface. Waves of the same type can differ in amplitude and wavelength. Waves can make objects move.
ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems. Energy flows and matter cycles within and among Earth’s systems, including the sun and Earth’s interior as primary energy sources. Plate tectonics is one result of these processes.
ESS2.B Plate Tectonics & Large Scale Interactions. Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains movements of rocks at Earth’s surface and geological history. Maps are used to display evidence of plate movement.
ESS2.C The Roles of Water in Earth's Processes. Water cycles among land, ocean, and atmosphere, and is propelled by sunlight and gravity. Density variations of sea water drive interconnected ocean currents. Water movement causes weathering and erosion, changing landscape features.
ESS3.B Natural Hazards. Mapping the history of natural hazards in a region and understanding related geological forces can help forecast the locations and likelihoods of future events, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and severe weather.
PS3.A Definitions of Energy. Kinetic energy can be distinguished from the various forms of potential energy. Energy changes to and from each type can be tracked through physical or chemical interactions. The relationship between the temperature and the total energy of a system depends on the types, states, and amounts of matter.
PS4.A Wave Properties. A simple wave model has a repeating pattern with a specific wavelength, frequency, and amplitude, and mechanical waves need a medium through which they are transmitted. This model can explain many phenomena including sound and light. Waves can transmit energy
ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems. Feedback effects exist within and among Earth’s systems.The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities.
ESS2.B Plate Tectonics & Large Scale Interactions. Radioactive decay within Earth’s interior contributes to thermal convection in the mantle. Plate tectonics can be viewed as the surface expression of mantle convection.
ESS2.C The Roles of Water in Earth's Processes. The planet’s dynamics are greatly influenced by water’s unique chemical and physical properties.
ESS3.B Natural Hazards. Natural hazards and other geological events have shaped the course of human history at local, regional, and global scales. Human activities can contribute to the frequency and intensity of some natural hazards.
PS3.A Definitions of Energy. The total energy within a system is conserved. Energy transfer within and between systems can be described and predicted in terms of energy associated with the motion or configuration of particles (objects).
PS4.A Wave Properties. The wavelength and frequency of a wave are related to one another by the speed of the wave, which depends on the type of wave and the medium through which it is passing. Waves can be used to transmit information and energy.
This tsunami was generated by the 9.5 magnitude earthquake near Valdivia, Chile on May 22, 1960. This is the largest earthquake ever recorded.
The tsunami killed 2223 people, most in Chile but also 139 in Japan, 61 in Hawaii, 21 in the Philippines, and 2 in California.
Stop the animation around the 5-minute mark: this is when tsunami warning centers (TWCs) would likely issue their first message today thanks to greatly improved science and technology since 1960.
A tsunami is a series of waves, not just a single wave.
In the open ocean, tsunami waves can travel at speeds up to 800 km per hour or 500 mi. per hour, as fast as a jet plane.
Tsunami waves may be small in the open ocean, but wave heights can increase substantially as they approach the shore (indicated by the colored dots).
Many coastal locations in the Pacific experienced significant hazards (indicated by the red dots) due to this tsunami.
The wave "energy map" of maximum wave heights show that those coastlines directly in the energy "beam" of red/yellow had a much higher impact than those to either side of it.