A wave or series of waves that occur in an ocean or other large body of water and that are caused by some activity that displaces large amounts of water, such as seaquakes, landslides, large meteorite impacts or volcanic eruptions under the ocean.
Tsunamis can move hundreds of miles per hour out and away from their point of origin. Near seacoasts, tsunamis may become very large and cause great destruction, but in the deep open sea they cannot be detected by the eye.
Tsunami is the Japanese word for "harbor wave," and are sometimes known as tidal waves. Some tsunamis may reach heights of 100 feet or more.
Tsunami about to strike in tropical resort island.
The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 formed waves that inundated whole districts in Java and Sumatra. Lisbon, Portugal (1755), and Hilo, Hawaii (1946), suffered disastrous floods from tidal waves caused by earthquakes.
Wrote the historian Ammianus Marcellinus of the catastrophe that befell Alexandria in 365 AD:
"On that fateful morning in July, the people of Alexandria were struck by horrible phenomena, such as are related to us neither in fable nor in truthful history. For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled."
As the quake itself subsided, the waters of the Mediterranean began pulling away ominously from the coasts, "so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths... first saw the beams of the sun."
Many people, thinking that the worst might be over, ventured into the suddenly shallow waters to gather stranded fish with their bare hands. But the worst was by no means over. The rapid drop in water level was soon followed by a tremendous wave that came crashing down on the city with all its terrifying power and fury. Ammianus described the scene in these words:
"The roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn... dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and leveled innumerable buildings.... The great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning."
In all, some 50,000 Alexandrians are thought to have perished in the earthquake and ensuing inundation.
In an age when extraordinary events were routinely attributed to God's will and disasters were viewed as divine punishment for man's sin, the earthquake caused astonishment and fear throughout the decaying Roman Empire.
People apprehensively recalled previous calamities and spoke of this one as only a preview of worse things to come. But Alexandria itself and its remarkably sturdy lighthouse endured, and for generations afterward its citizens commemorated the earthquake and flood of 365 with a yearly festival. On each anniversary of the disaster, according to the fifth-century lawyer and historian Sozomen, Alexandrians would make "a general illumination throughout the city," offer "thankful prayers to God," and celebrate "very brilliantly and piously" their city's survival."
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