Natural Hazards

, Volume 63, Issue 1, pp 5–30 | Cite as

Process-sedimentological challenges in distinguishing paleo-tsunami deposits

  • G. ShanmugamEmail author
Original Paper


There has been a lively debate since the 1980s on distinguishing between paleo-tsunami deposits and paleo-cyclone deposits using sedimentological criteria. Tsunami waves not only cause erosion and deposition during inundation of coastlines in subaerial environments, but also trigger backwash flows in submarine environments. These incoming waves and outgoing flows emplace sediment in a wide range of environments, which include coastal lake, beach, marsh, lagoon, bay, open shelf, slope and basin. Holocene deposits of tsunami-related processes from these environments exhibit a multitude of physical, biological and geochemical features. These features include basal erosional surfaces, anomalously coarse sand layers, imbricated boulders, chaotic bedding, rip-up mud clasts, normal grading, inverse grading, landward-fining trend, horizontal planar laminae, cross-stratification, hummocky cross-stratification, massive sand rich in marine fossils, sand with high K, Mg and Na elemental concentrations and sand injections. These sedimentological features imply extreme variability in processes that include erosion, bed load (traction), lower flow regime currents, upper-flow regime currents, oscillatory flows, combined flows, bidirectional currents, mass emplacement, freezing en masse, settling from suspension and sand injection. The notion that a ‘tsunami’ event represents a single (unique) depositional process is a myth. Although many sedimentary features are considered to be reliable criteria for recognizing potential paleo-tsunami deposits, similar features are also common in cyclone-induced deposits. At present, paleo-tsunami deposits cannot be distinguished from paleo-cyclone deposits using sedimentological features alone, without historical information. The future success of distinguishing paleo-tsunami deposits depends on the development of criteria based on systematic synthesis of copious modern examples worldwide and on the precise application of basic principles of process sedimentology.


Paleo-tsunami deposits Paleo-cyclone deposits Process sedimentology Sedimentological criteria 



My interest on tsunamis-related deposition was triggered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which hit the coast of Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India on 26 December. My hometown (Sirkali), which is located about 12 km inland from the tsunami-devastated coast, provided immediate shelter for tens of thousands of tsunami victims. I would like to thank N. Swedaranyam, T. Saraswathi (my sister), S. Thambidurai and S. Murugan for their assistance during my 2005 field study of coastal deposits of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Tamil Nadu. I thank Guest Editor Arun Kumar for inviting me to contribute this article. I wish to thank Journal Editor T. Murty for his suggestions on content during early stages of manuscript preparation in 2009. My sincere thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their detailed, critical and helpful comments on the manuscript. Jean Shanmugam (my wife) is thanked for her general comments. I am grateful to Cliff Frohlich, The University of Texas at Austin, for providing photographs of tsunami-emplaced boulders in Tongatapu Island, south-west Pacific.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesThe University of Texas at ArlingtonArlingtonUSA

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