Study of Historic Tsunamis May Help Future Disaster Management


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Why Study Ancient Tsunamis?

Sediments provide evidence of historic tsunamis: Image courtesy of Klaus Reicherter

We know that tsunamis have occurred in the past, and recent events mean that many people are aware that they may happen again. Tsunami modelling is widely undertaken for high-risk areas, and warning systems are being developed to determine how a future event might progress. So why take the trouble to study events which occurred in the distant past?

The answer, Klaus Reicherter tells Decoded Science, is that, “if tsunamis happened, they will happen again and affect the coast. People have to be aware of that, and need to keep in mind that a coast was affected, and how to react in terms of preparedness and safety.

Tsunami Evidence for the Eastern Mediterranean

Professor Reicherter and his colleagues followed up their study in the North Aegean with a similar project sparked by the Greek historian Herodotus’ description of how “there came to be a great ebb of the sea backwards, which lasted for a long time…then there came upon them a great flood-tide of the sea, higher than ever before, as the natives of the place say, though high tides come often.”

The team’s research again uncovered evidence of what Professor Reicherter describes as ‘multiple tsunami evidence’ in what are now popular tourist areas – which he says, demonstrates that, although the eastern Mediterranean is not regarded as a high tsunami risk, there is a chance that such an event may occur in future.

Herodutus wrote of a major tsunami in the Mediterranean: Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Given the developed nature of the coasts in the eastern Mediterranean, the study highlights the need not only for tsunami warning systems (none exists at present in the area) but also for contingency planning should such an event occur. “If a tsunami occurs near Crete island like the 365 AD one,” warns Professor Reicherter, “the entire eastern Mediterranean is affected, including the Levant states and Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Italy (Sicily) and Malta.

The study of historic and prehistoric geologic events such as tsunamis, therefore, provides an indication that events such as tsunamis, though they may occur rarely, do take place. As with many other traditions, (the stories of both Noah’s Ark and Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea are examples) there is more than a grain of geological truth behind them – and, in the case of tsunamis, there may be valuable lessons to be learned in the modern day.


Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. Geologic Hazards of the Oregon Coast. (2012). Accessed 27 April 2012.

Reicherter, K. et al. Holocene tsunamigenic sediments and tsunami modelling in the Thermaikos Gulf area (Northern Greece). (2010). Zeitscrify fur Geomorphologie. Accessed April 27, 2012.

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