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Story: Tsunamis

Because of its long, exposed coastline, New Zealand is vulnerable to destructive waves that periodically surge onto its shores. Since the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, there has been a sharpened awareness of the dangers.

Story by Willem de Lange and Eileen McSaveney
Main image: Water pouring into Lyttelton dry dock during the 1960 tsunami

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

What is a tsunami?

A tsunami is a series of broad waves in the sea (and sometimes in a lake). The cause is a movement on the sea floor – from an earthquake, a volcano erupting, or a landslide. Spreading like ripples from a stone thrown into a pond, they move outwards, travelling as fast as a jet.

Impact on land

When they reach shallow water the waves slow down, but they become higher, sometimes 20 metres or more. They can be like a wall of water that crashes, or fast-rising water levels. They rush far inland for many minutes, moving faster than you can run. People caught by the waves often drown, or killed by debris, and buildings are destroyed.

Tsunamis in the Pacific

Tsunamis can occur in any ocean. But most of them happen in the Pacific Ocean, triggered by the earthquakes and volcanoes there. Tsunamis over a metre high reach New Zealand about 12 times every century.

Some New Zealand tsunamis

  • In the 15th century, tsunamis may have forced many Māori to move inland from the coast. A massive wave wiped out an entire village on D’Urville Island.
  • In 1855, after a powerful earthquake, water in Wellington Harbour spilled on to Lambton Quay as the land moved and the harbour tilted. Large tsunami waves also rushed in from Cook Strait, at times leaving ships grounded on the harbour bottom.
  • A local earthquake at Gisborne in 1947 caused a tsunami 30 minutes later. One man said the wall of water roared like an express train. A 10-metre wave smashed a cottage, but no-one was killed.
  • In 1960 a powerful earthquake caused a tsunami that killed thousands of people in Chile and across the Pacific. On 23 May, boats, houses, and animals were lost as waves hit New Zealand's east coast. Two days later, coastal schools were closed and thousands of people moved inland when a 90-minute warning was given of a possible tsunami from a major aftershock of the earthquake.

Warning of distant tsunamis

It could take 12 - 15 hours for a wave from a South American earthquake to arrive in New Zealand. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii tells New Zealand if a tsunami is expected. Radio and television announcements warn people to move away from the coast.

Local tsunamis

If an earthquake near New Zealand triggers a tsunami, there may be only a few minutes’ warning. People who are on the coast during an earthquake, or see water going out from the shore, should move at least 35 metres uphill or over 1 kilometre inland.

How to cite this page:

Willem de Lange and Eileen McSaveney, 'Tsunamis', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Willem de Lange and Eileen McSaveney, published 12 Jun 2006