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Observations and Impacts from the 2010 Chilean and 2011 Japanese Tsunamis in California (USA)


The coast of California was significantly impacted by two recent teletsunami events, one originating off the coast of Chile on February 27, 2010 and the other off Japan on March 11, 2011. These tsunamis caused extensive inundation and damage along the coast of their respective source regions. For the 2010 tsunami, the NOAA West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a state-wide Tsunami Advisory based on forecasted tsunami amplitudes ranging from 0.18 to 1.43 m with the highest amplitudes predicted for central and southern California. For the 2011 tsunami, a Tsunami Warning was issued north of Point Conception and a Tsunami Advisory south of that location, with forecasted amplitudes ranging from 0.3 to 2.5 m, the highest expected for Crescent City. Because both teletsunamis arrived during low tide, the potential for significant inundation of dry land was greatly reduced during both events. However, both events created rapid water-level fluctuations and strong currents within harbors and along beaches, causing extensive damage in a number of harbors and challenging emergency managers in coastal jurisdictions. Field personnel were deployed prior to each tsunami to observe and measure physical effects at the coast. Post-event survey teams and questionnaires were used to gather information from both a physical effects and emergency response perspective. During the 2010 tsunami, a maximum tsunami amplitude of 1.2 m was observed at Pismo Beach, and over $3-million worth of damage to boats and docks occurred in nearly a dozen harbors, most significantly in Santa Cruz, Ventura, Mission Bay, and northern Shelter Island in San Diego Bay. During the 2011 tsunami, the maximum amplitude was measured at 2.47 m in Crescent City Harbor with over $50-million in damage to two dozen harbors. Those most significantly affected were Crescent City, Noyo River, Santa Cruz, Moss Landing, and southern Shelter Island. During both events, people on docks and near the ocean became at risk to injury with one fatality occurring during the 2011 tsunami at the mouth of the Klamath River. Evaluations of maximum forecasted tsunami amplitudes indicate that the average percent error was 38 and 28 % for the 2010 and 2011 events, respectively. Due to these recent events, the California tsunami program is developing products that will help: (1) the maritime community better understand tsunami hazards within their harbors, as well as if and where boats should go offshore to be safe, and (2) emergency managers develop evacuation plans for relatively small “Warning” level events where extensive evacuation is not required. Because tsunami-induced currents were responsible for most of the damage in these two events, modeled current velocity estimates should be incorporated into future forecast products from the warning centers.

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The authors would like to thank NOAA, the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, and FEMA for supporting tsunami hazard mitigation and response activities in California. Thank you to the California Geological Survey, NOAA-National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologists in California, the California Harbor Master and Port Captain Association, the California Coastal Commission, and the state and county emergency managers who are part of the California Tsunami Program Steering Committee for their participation in the post-event questionnaires and surveys.

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Correspondence to Rick I. Wilson.

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Wilson, R.I., Admire, A.R., Borrero, J.C. et al. Observations and Impacts from the 2010 Chilean and 2011 Japanese Tsunamis in California (USA). Pure Appl. Geophys. 170, 1127–1147 (2013).

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  • Tsunami
  • field observations
  • warning center
  • maritime
  • damage
  • California