Tsunami photos and videos

In xkcd.com/1010 (I have a hard time not reading that as “ten”) I said that before 2004, there weren’t really any photos or videos of tsunamis. This isn’t quite true—there were a handful of photos and at least one video.

When I was a kid, I was had an irrationally powerful fear of tsunamis (Etymology-Man would suggest “cymophobia”). I swam in the ocean a lot when I was very young, so waves were a big part of my world.  I would fret about tsunamis whenever I was near the coast, and to this day I have occasional nightmares about a wave coming out of nowhere and sweeping me away.

Looking back, part of what made tsunamis frightening was was that I didn’t know what they looked like, and my imagination ran wild filling in the gaps. I read what I could find about them. In particular, I remember being just old enough to work my way through this book, and carrying it around with me so I could read the tsunami section over and over. It included a grainy photo of a ship in a Japanese harbor plowing through an unimpressive-looking line of breakers. I think that’s also where I found a photo of some people running away from something (it was this photo, but the reproduction in my book was too grainy to see what they were running from).

Years later, after the rise of the web, I realized maybe I could now find a video of a tsunami, and finally see the thing that had so captivated me as a child. But my searches for videos didn’t turn up much of anything.

Then the 2004 tsunami happened. Shortly after, as YouTube and its various clones proliferated, there was more horrifying footage available than I could handle.

A year or two ago, I read an article somewhere (I have tried to find it again with no luck) which mentioned that before 2004, there hadn’t been much in the way of photographic or video records of tsunamis, and that this had contributed to a lack of understanding of their form. My childhood impression seemingly confirmed, I worked this into a comic.

It turns out I was mistaken. There are several photographs, some of which can be seen here, here, and here. There’s also a video here (sent in by Phil Plait).

I think what confused me as a child was that none of the photos showed the wave I expected—just debris, and occasionally some visible water. Now that I’ve seen horrifying videos like this, I’ve gone back to some of those old photos and realized that they did show a tsunami. It was just so unlike what I was expecting that I didn’t recognize it.

So thank you to everyone who sent in information. It’s really fascinating stuff. Oh, and anyone interested in the history of tsunamis might want to check out a Google Books advanced search for material published before 1850 containing phrases like earthquake waveearthquake tide, or earthquake water feet. There are some gripping historical accounts buried there, along with some really interesting speculation by 19th-century scientists about the mechanisms behind earthquakes and their associated waves (the consensus seemed to be hot gas moving between subterranean chambers).

177 thoughts on “Tsunami photos and videos

  1. This reminds me of James Cameron’s motivation for The Abyss. I remember watching him discuss a dream of an enormous wave during the special DVD features. Curiously, the Wikipedia entry for the movie claims that it came from a science demonstration/exhibition he attended when he was 17. Maybe the truth lies somewhere exclusively in the intersection

  2. Etymology Man tells me that, as there are several words starting in cymato- (Cymatosaurus, Cymatophora), “fear of waves” should probably be called cymatophobia.

  3. Pingback: xkcd: Etymology Man | Learn to Dive Today Blog

  4. I could have written that post! In fact I’m a bit shaky just from reading it… I grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and when at the age of 5 or so I learned that the big loudspeaker-like things on the beach were “tsunami warning horns,” well… the PHOBIA appeared. My dad, trying to reassure me, said “Don’t worry–if there’s a tsunami, the ocean will pull away from the beach, and we can all run!” … Oh, really? Thanks, dad, I’m now 1000% more terrified at the thought of the ocean pulling slowly back, like the lips of some horrific monster, exposing the fangy bottom…. Aieeeee. Oh, and the wave dreams? Yeah.

  5. WOW, I also used to have the same fear of tsunamis! It was ever since in 4th grade, we spent part of a day in school learning about tsunamis. I knew that there were extremely rare Atlantic tsunamis, and I would always fear one would snag me when our family went to Cape Cod. AND, I always wondered what a tsunami actually looked like, and I hadn’t managed to find that out.

  6. Does any one else wonder what happened to the people driving in the last video footage?

  7. I’m a little late to this blog, but I would suggest that a dream about Tsunami, while they are tremendously frightening in real life, probably lends itself more to the fear that you can just be wiped away without a trace, or completely overwhelmed.

    Just a thought.

  8. It’s very interesting reading this blag post, because as a child I too was very fascinated with tsunamis, and I also had a recurring dream of gigantic waves coming in and sweeping me out to sea. I too did not know what they looked like because of the lack of photographic documentation, so I simply assumed they looked like any other wave, except much taller.

  9. I remember hearing the news stories in 2004, particularly the part about how the water went way way out first. I remember being alarmed when I heard that. Eventually I realized that as a kid I had been taught that if the water ever did that, run away from the beach immediately; a tidal wave was coming. It was a lesson from a Hawaii tsunami where people went out to gather the fish after the water went out-and they were swept away when the water came back.

  10. What a great post ! it was really very informative.I look forward in reading more of your work post, And make you sure that i will bookmark your site how ever i can come back latter.

  11. I was actually there at the 2004 tsunami, lifting off for the US from Singapore just 2 minutes after the first waves hit. Great comics, Randall, keep them up.

  12. They sure can appear as waves , even in open water .

    The wave appears when the surge travels over a a sloping sea floor, sloping in suitable fashions.

    What you see in deep water is not much.
    What you see damaging the buildings is a surge where its moving along flat land,
    or after its gone over flat land, and turned to be a pure surge, or rise in water height.

    What you see in a long harbour, or in various seas and bays where the floor is right, is a wave.

    Japan coastguard rode over waves… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdhfV-8dbCE&feature=related

  13. I thought tsunami dreams were common, because I have them all the time! But I’ve tried to look it up in various dream diaries and I haven’t been able to find it. So, I’m glad to know that someone else also has recurring tsunami dreams.

  14. The photos were incrediable. This just gives you a small look of what you can experience with a tsunami. It’s incrediable, but yet devestating at the same time. One can only wonder what actually happens when a tsunami hits, then the aftermath. If you have never seen a war struck area, then I imagine it is the same thing.

  15. So, this may only be interesting to me, but the original photo you link to is the same as the first photo in the “here, here, and here” list. The second one is just zoomed in on the gentleman with the lovely flat-top haircut… You may say that it was blown up to better show the size of the wave, but I like to think that it was for the haircut…

  16. Was looking for a place to contact you to wish you well and thank you for the beautiful comic “Two Years”. This seems to be as good a place as any.

  17. In The Lord of the Rings, Book Six, Chapter Five, Faramir and Eowyn stand on the walls of Minas Tirith and witness the downfall of Sauron from afar:

    As they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. And still they waited for they knew not what. Then presently it seemed to them that above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth, and they felt the walls of the City quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts beat suddenly again.

    ‘It reminds me of Numenor,’ said Faramir, and wondered to hear himself speak.

    ‘Of Numenor?’ said Eowyn.

    ‘Yes,’ said Faramir. ‘of the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of the great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills, and coming on, darkness unescapable. I often dream of it.’

    J. R. R. Tolkien’s biographers state that Tolkien himself had recurrent dreams of this sort, which he incorporated into his story.

  18. I knew a friend who experienced a Tsunami first hand, she said it was hardly noticeable until the wave actually started to cause damage, no-one expected the devastation that the Tsunami caused.

  19. +1 for fear of tsunami. The trigger for me was the 1964 Alaska earthquake, or more precisely the pictures in the National Geographic issue that followed. One in particular has haunted me (I think it was an artist’s rendition rather than a photo), it showed the water advancing across an Alaskan train yard. The water had picked up a string of train cars and was carrying them across the yard. One of the traincars was on fire. About a hundred feet in front of the wave, there was a little stick figure of a man running. Nearly 50 years later, and I still have nightmares about that little stick man.

  20. ay is, perhaps, the best western movie about Budhism.
    He is born, lives and dies everyday, over and over untill ove

  21. Even after many years it is still horrible to look at these photos. If only someone could have predicted this…think of the lives that could have been saved. Instead, so much energy is focused on petty matters.

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