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Tsunamis and Surf

Tsunamis are unique in their destructive power, but they share many features with other ocean waves. Learn how the two wave types differ, and how ocean waves of all kinds affect New Zealand’s coast.

Ocean waves are a powerful force in the lives of New Zealanders. We like to surf them and swim in them – yet we are also vulnerable to the power of ocean waves. In particular, coastal New Zealand is at high risk of inundation by a tsunami.

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New Zealand Research

People Profiles

Modelling tsunamis and protecting the coast

Dr Rob Bell

Studying storm surge and coastal hazards

Dr Richard Gorman

Predicting ocean waves

Dr Te Taka Keegan

Science Ideas & Concepts

Dr Willem de Lange

Fundamentals of waves

Looking Closer

Waves as energy transfer

Scientific enquiry: a personal view

Behaviour of waves

Measuring instruments


Rediscovering traditional Māori navigation

Teaching & Learning Approaches

Comparing tsunamis and surf

Making Mexican waves

Sci Media Videos

Similarities and differences: tsunamis and surf waves

Ever Wondered? Series 1, Episode 4 Part 2

Wave tank modelling



Plate tectonics

Several tsunamis – particularly those in South-east Asia (2004), Samoa (2009) and Japan (2011) – have focused attention on the destructive power of these waves. New Zealand researchers are actively working to understand how a large tsunami would affect our coast.

For all their destructiveness, tsunamis share many features with surf waves and other water waves. In fact, waves of all kinds (such as water waves, sound waves and electromagnetic radiation) share several fundamental characteristics that can help us understand why they behave the way they do.

In this science story, we look at the similarities and differences between tsunamis and surf waves, and we learn how ocean waves are studied in New Zealand, how early Māori used ocean waves as a guide to navigate across the Pacific and why you should never try to surf a tsunami.

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