The Corner

Tsunami Notes

First of all, why do we have to call them tsunamis? Yes, I know tidal waves — or tsunamis — have nothing to do with the tides. But tsunami means “harbor wave” and last I checked a tsunami need not show up in a harbor to be a tsunami.

Second, I would like more clarity on this 500 MPH wave thing. I’m very reluctant to bring this up because A) I don’t know a lot of physics and B) I don’t want a deluge of email from people who do (I’ve learned the hard way that engineers and physicists are relentless emailers of technical information given the slightest provocation) and C) my wife has already called me a dork for thinking about this as much as I have. But am I crazy for thinking that the mainstream media has conflated two kinds of “waves” into one?

Here’s my question: Does the actual, specific, ontologically exact column of water making up the tsunami-wave travel for the full thousand miles all the way to shore or does the shockwave do the travelling? Everytime I think about it I conclude it has to be the shock wave and not the actual water column.

By illustration: if I line up three (or, theoretically, three thousand) soccer balls so that they are touching in straight column and I kick one at one end into the next ball over, that kicked-ball will barely move. But the third soccer ball will go flying because the force transferred (think of those desktop space-wasters with the knocking balls suspended by string).

So isn’t that what happens with the tsunami? The shock wave travels through the water, not the particular water molecules that were once 1,000 miles away right? I mean if the water immediately around the focal point of the quake had been died yellow would you be able to see a wall of yellow water moving through the blue ocean for hundreds of miles until it washed up on shore?

I know this might be hair-splitting but I’m genuinely curious. And if it’s not a shock wave but the actual specific water molecules, then what happens to the water it moves through?

I will be monitoring email closely for a short amount of time. Please watch this space for a plea for no more emails on the subject, once I have my answer.

Update No more emails on point number 2 please. See post above.

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