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Tsunami: Not fit for surfing

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  You can’t surf a tsunami.

Though this might seem obvious, there are surely people who have imagined it.

Even if you were brazen enough to try, tsunami expert and Humboldt State University Geology Professor Lori Dengler says there’s no point in even getting your surfboard out in the first place.

“In surfers’ language, a tsunami has no face. It’s not a breaking wave,” she said. “In order to surf you have to have a face ... There’s nothing to dig your board into.

Dengler likes to use the term “surge” rather than “wave” when she’s talking about tsunamis encroaching onto land. That’s because she said there’s a misconception that a tsunami arrives as a cresting wave, like a big version of those that every day pound our shores.

“The wave length of a tsunami is just way too long for it to do that,” Dengler said.

A tsunami’s length can span hundreds of miles between crests, and when it reaches shore it usually comes in as a “debris-filled flood,” Dengler said. It carries with it everything it’s dredged up from the sea floor and also what the wave has run over on land, including garbage, parking meters, hunks of buildings and dead animals.

For instance, in Crescent City in 1964, survivors recalled that the water rose at a rate of about a foot a minute, floating cars off the street and homes off their foundations. This description is more fitting for a river that’s overflowed its banks.

Dengler admitted that tsunamis do sometimes create a breaking wave, but it only happens in the rarest of circumstances and it’s the exception, not the rule. But even when a tsunami does break, she said, it’s still not surfable. Like other tsunamis it’s still filled with debris and can carry hundreds of feet inland.

Should someone luck upon one of these waves, Dengler said there’s another problem at the end of the ride. There’s no place to go.

The wave trough can be more than 100 miles from the front of the surge, so there’s no way to get behind it. The ride ends on land. It’s also impossible to dive under a tsunami because the entire water column from the surface to the sea floor is moving inland.

“You can’t duck out of a tsunami,” Dengler said.

 

More stories from the six part series on the '64 Tsunami:

The waves of destruction   

Part 1   Why are we tsunami-prone?    

Part 2  A night of close calls    

Part 3  Riding out the wave   

Part 4  Tsunami at the stairs 

Part 5  In their own words 


To learn more about the '62 Tsunami


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