Can You Surf a Tsunami Wave?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 11 2011 6:38 PM

Can You Surf a Tsunami Wave?

As Japan reels from Friday's devastating earthquake andtsunami, other coastal areas in the Pacific—including Hawaii and the westerncontinental U.S.—are experiencing serious waves of their own. This got uswondering: Could thrill-seeking surfers actually ride those massive waves?

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The answer, at least anywhere near the quake, is essentiallyno. Theoretically, you could survivean unexpected tsunami wave if you were really lucky. Experienced surfers,however, strongly discourage seeking one out. For one thing, tsunami waves, especiallythe initial ones (they come in groups), are far more turbulent and dangerousthan other big waves, such as those produced by a storm. In order for a wave tobe good for surfing, it must have a "face" (a flat surface that the board can"grip") that eventually curls over and breaks on the shore. A tsunami wave,however, has no face. Instead, it is usually a rushing wall of whitewater thatnever breaks. Furthermore, tsunami waves can travel much faster than otherwaves (around 100mph at shore, in excess of 500mph at the epicenter) and pullup a great deal of debris from the ocean bottom, which can make surfing resemblea deadly game of Frogger.

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Farther from the epicenter, surfing conditions may still bealtered—and not necessarily for the better. Veteran surfer Jim Evans, who livesin Malibu, CA, said that the few Californians who went out today were disappointed.While some people expect that a distant tsunami will produce good surf, inEvans' experience it actually makes for "swirly" water and unpredictable wavesthat break too closely together. Moreover, he says, tsunamis tend to produce astrong rip-tide effect that creates periods of low water levels and dangerouscurrents—not a good scene for surfers.

Even if a tsunami forces them out of the water, however,surfers can use their unique talents to help with disaster relief.  Surfers actually make great emergency aidworkers in these situations, having acquired considerable experience and knowledgeabout the geography of shorelines around the world. Following the 2010Indonesia tsunami, for example, surf charter companies and other surfer groups weresome of the first helpers on the scene , assisting locals and providingguidance to more traditional aid organizations.

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