- SAN FRANCISCO -- Volcanic
landslides that generate huge and devastating tsunamis tend to occur during
historically warmer times on Earth, a new study suggests. Scientists don't
know exactly why, but since the global climate is warming as you read this,
the apparent connection was tossed out this week as a reason for scientists
to be concerned about the threat now.
- Tsunamis are waves that race across the ocean without
much fanfare but grow to frightening proportions when they reach land.
The waves are deep, and while they may appear just a few inches or feet
tall on the open ocean, they can soar to the height of a multi-story
as they are forced upward near the shore.
- A tsunami can be generated by the sudden uplift of the
seafloor in an earthquake, or by the paddle-like effect of a landslide
crashing into the sea from, say, an island volcano. Yet while
tsunamis have been observed from their genesis to the disastrous end,
have never witnessed a significant open-ocean tsunami generated by a
- Evidence exists at various locations around the world
for megatsunamis, as scientists call the largest of these events. They
seem to occur every 100,000 years or so, said Gary McMurtry of the
- These monsters can be hundreds of feet tall and,
on local topography, race miles inland.
- One controversial event, about 110,000 years ago,
to create a 1,600-foot wave in Hawaii. Yes, you read that right: Nearly
one-third of a mile, or about half a kilometer.
- But the evidence -- marine fossils way up there where
there's no sea -- is controversial. Perhaps the islands have been rising
and carried the fossils up, critics suggest.
- McMurtry's team looked at marine fossils at the Kohala
volcano on the main island of Hawaii, which is known to be sinking about
an inch per decade. The fossils simply could not have started at a lower
elevation, McMurtry said Monday at a meeting of the American Geophysical
Union held here. A submarine landslide from the giant Mauna Loa volcano
has been dated to the same time and, the thinking goes, caused the
- McMurtry and his colleagues also re-examined evidence
for a tsunami that may have struck Bermuda and other locations in the
420,000 years ago.
- Scientists agree that submarine landslides caused by
the collapse of island volcanoes -- think of the destruction of Mount St.
Helens -- could generate these megatsunamis. Evidence for such landslides
can be found in topography scans of seafloors around various island
McMurtry points out.
- "These giant landslides seem to occur during periods
of higher than normal sea level -- like we have now," he said.
- High sea levels tend to correspond with wetter climates,
he said. What this has to do with landslides is not known. But perhaps,
McMurtry figures, excess rainfall can serve as a trigger for the cleaving
of a volcano-in-waiting.
- That might all sound like a lot of logic leaps, and
is the first to admit there isn't enough data to figure out whether global
warming and tsunamis are correlated. But there is some independent thinking
that supports the notion.
- Peter Cervelli, of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, has
studied the Hawaiian volcanoes and is not involved in McMurtry's work.
Cervelli said it's possible that water during extended wet periods seeps
down into natural faults on the flanks of a volcano -- volcanoes are known
to be more porous than other land areas -- precipitating a collapse by
"bringing it closer to failure."
- And in other work, Emily Brodsky of the University of
California, Los Angeles has modeled the friction involved in huge volcanic
landslides. She agrees that it's possible that higher rainfall amounts
could make a precarious situation more slippery.
- So should we worry? "Maybe," says McMurtry.
He thinks that a tsunami, which can race across an entire ocean in a matter
of hours, is a real threat to urbanized coastlines. Other experts agree
that a large tsunami would be bad news for, say, Los Angeles or New York
City. And tsunamis are not parochial. One originating in Alaska in 1964
killed people in California and generated damaging surges clear down in
- McMurtry believes the threat is greater than from an
asteroid impact, but asteroid research has managed to lure more funding.
More money should be spent to monitor the stability of oceanic volcanoes,
- "Mauna Loa is as big as it's ever been, so the
is there" for a giant submarine landslide, McMurtry said. He's even
attached some odds to the threat: "The probability of a megatsunami
in Hawaii in the next 10,000 years is about 50 percent."
- © 1999-2004 Imaginova Corp.
- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.