Tsunami Facts for Kids

Michele Meleen
Contributor: Gabrielle Applebury
huge ocean waves

Tsunamis are rare natural disasters largely affecting coastal towns, villages, and lands. These massive series of waves travel fast and get larger in appearance in shallow water. Learn more about how a tsunami forms, what it looks like, and how to protect yourself with these fun tsunami facts suitable for kids.

What Causes a Tsunami?

Tsunami wave caused by calving Moreno glacier

Several environmental factors and scenarios cause a tsunami and shape how damaging it will be. It can be caused by a variety of factors including an earthquake, a meteor crashing into the ocean, volcanic eruptions or even a landslide. Learn interesting facts about how often tsunamis occur, how large they are and how often they happen.

Size and Height

While each tsunami is different due to the depth of the water where it occurs and the causing factor, experts make generalizations on how big and fast a tsunami can be based on collective data.

  • In the deepest parts of the ocean, a tsunami can race at 500 miles per hour.
  • In shallow water, the top of a wave moves faster than the bottom of a wave which is how a tsunami wave looks so much larger near shore than in open water.
  • The average tsunami makes the ocean rise about 10 feet upward.
  • The highest tsunami wave recorded was 100 feet tall in 1958 in Alaska.
  • Like a tornado, people report a tsunami sounds like a freight train.
  • A tsunami can cause coastline waters to recede quickly or rise quickly rather than produce giant waves.
  • The series of waves from a tsunami can be spread up to an hour apart.

How Often Do Tsunamis Occur?

By keeping track of weather or natural disasters and phenomena around the world scientists understand how, why and where they happen. If people can better predict when a tsunami occurs or how big it will be, those on land nearby will have more warning to get to safety.

  • Each year there are about two tsunamis somewhere in the world.
  • Massive and devastating tsunamis happen about every 15 years.
  • A large tsunami can produce large waves for days after the event that caused it.
  • A tsunami travels about 10 times faster in deep water than it does in shallow water.
  • Nearly three-fourths of all tsunamis take place in the Pacific Ocean.
  • Only one percent of the world's tsunamis occur in the Black Sea.

Damage Caused by Tsunamis

Researchers have examined how natural disasters affected human lives and damaged land throughout history.

  • The tsunami with the largest amount of human lives claimed occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004 where about 255,000 people lost their lives.
  • Over two and a half million people have been affected by a tsunami in the last thousand years.
  • Broken bones and cuts are common injuries for people who live through a tsunami.
  • Cars and even houses can be carried through the water during a tsunami.
  • The currents of a tsunami can cause erosion of larger structures like bridges.

Tsunami Detection

As experts and researchers work to make warning systems as effective as possible, there are natural warning signs to look for like seeing big, quick changes in water levels or feeling an earthquake.

  • Evacuation route sign
    A Tsunami Warning means an earthquake has occurred and people should prepare for flooding.
  • In Japanese, "tsunami" means "harbor wave."
  • A tsunami wave can look like a water wall near shorelines and look more like flooding further inland.
  • The states with the highest risk for potential tsunamis are Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, California, and Oregon.
  • The last tsunami to hit the U.S.A. was in 1964 near Alaska.
  • A tsunami is not a tidal wave.
  • There are about 40 tsunami detection buoys floating in the world's oceans to help scientists at warning centers keep track of oceanic activity.

How Do You Survive a Tsunami?

Making it through a tsunami can feel daunting. Get prepared by understanding what to do if a tsunami warning is issued.

  • Be mindful of tsunami warnings, as well as tsunami watches which may be automatically texted to your cell phone, and heard or seen on the radio, television, as well as online.
  • If you live in a coastal region, have an emergency kit prepared for you, your loved ones, as well as your pets which should include food, water, clothing, medication, and sanitary supplies.
  • If you are in a tsunami warning zone and can't get out, the third or higher floors of a concrete building are the safest place to seek shelter.
  • Ideally evacuate to land about two miles away from the coast, or about 100 feet above sea level.
  • Practice your escape route and plan with your family, and if an official warning is issued get your family and pets to higher ground as soon as possible.
  • Try to stay away from buildings, bridges, and structures where rocks or other heavy objects may dislodge and fall.
  • Tsunami waves can last for hours, so avoid returning until authorities have okayed it.

Tsunami Resources

If you can't get enough interesting information about tsunamis, check out these other great resources for kids:

  • National Geographic Kids offers an in-depth explanation of how a tsunami forms and the destruction it can cause using comparison pictures and charts on their website.
  • See real photos and illustrations, and find out how to protect yourself in a natural disaster with Tsunamis and Other Natural Disasters. This fun fact book is the companion to the fictional Magic Tree House book, High Tide in Hawaii, where Jack and Annie visit Hawaii while a tsunami threatens to make landfall.
  • If you've got questions, Weather Wiz Kids has answers. In addition to their frequently asked question style information, the website offers definitions of terms related to tsunamis and three lesson plans.
  • The Dr. Binocs Show is a brief, educational cartoon on YouTube where kids can see detailed explanations of how a tsunami is formed and moves.

Natural Disaster

While tsunamis and other natural disasters aren't preventable, education helps people stay safe during these emergencies. When you understand a tsunami, you can keep yourself safe or use your knowledge to help others stay safe.

Tsunami Facts for Kids