What is a meteotsunami?

Natural History

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Storm clouds over Lake Superior
Storm clouds loom over Lake Superior. When conditions are right, meteotsunamis may occur in many bodies of water around the world, including the Great Lakes. Some meteotsunamis have been observed to reach heights of 6 feet or more. Meteotsunamis are generally smaller than tsunamis triggered by seismic activity.

You’ve heard of tsunamis—those giant oceanic waves triggered primarily by earthquakes that can roll ashore, causing loss of life and disaster. But have you heard of meteotsunamis?

Meteotsunamis are large waves that scientists are just beginning to better understand. Unlike tsunamis triggered by seismic activity, meteotsunamis are driven by air-pressure disturbances often associated with fast-moving weather events, such as severe thunderstorms, squalls, and other storm fronts. The storm generates a wave that moves towards the shore, and is amplified by a shallow continental shelf and inlet, bay, or other coastal feature.

Meteotsunamis have been observed to reach heights of 6 feet or more. They occur in many places around the world, including the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Coast, and the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas.

Identifying a meteotsunami is a challenge because its characteristics are almost indistinguishable from a seismic tsunami. It can also be confused with wind-driven storm surge or a seiche. These uncertainties make it difficult to predict a meteotsunami and warn the public of a potential event. However, NOAA scientists have indentified atmospheric conditions that are likely to generate a meteotsunami and continue to work on ways to forecast them.