Science of a tsunami: 'What we cannot predict is the magnitude'

Science of a tsunami: 'What we cannot predict is the magnitude' »Play Video

CORVALLIS, ORE.--They can come with little to no warning--massive, thrashing waves that leave a watery wake of destruction.

"You will see boats and cars being washed to shore."

They're seismic sea waves, also known as tsunamis.

"It seems like we have escaped a big one here...we had advanced warning, as much as like ten hours or so."

Oregon State Professor of Coastal, Ocean and Structural Engineering, Solomon Yim says that much notice is rare.

90 percent of tsunamis are caused by earthquakes.

Typically they're generated by a shift or movement on the ocean floor creating kinetic energy.
Energy that can propel a seismic sea wave at nearly 500 miles per hour until the wave hits the shore.

"Depending on the bathymetry of the shore, you can have very mild--a few feet of water height, or you can have very destructive events."

The severity all hinges on a country's topography.

Yim says a similar and potentially more catastrophic tsunami will strike in Oregon--it's just a matter of time.

"We should be very concerned about a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest," said Yim. "If a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake occurs we will only have fifteen to twenty minutes because the earthquake will be very close to Oregon."

The "Wave Basin" at Oregon State University's Hinsdale Wave Research Lab is the second largest in the world for tsunami research. While understanding the anatomy of a tsunami is difficult, researchers use labs like Oregon's to make determining when a tsunami will hit a little easier.

"We can predict the arrival time quite accurately. What we cannot predict is the magnitude of the inundation of the wave height."