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06/26/2013

Tsunami without an earthquake? It can happen, it may have just happened

Tsunami

A file photo of a tidal wave in Penang after tsunami waves hit  Asia in December 2004.  The tsunami killed more than 13, 000 people. (Reuters photo)

Can a big enough storm surge spur a tsunami?

That really rare phenomenon may have happened when a storm blew through the East Coast earlier this month, the Associated Press is reporting.

        "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the tsunami was observed June 13 at more than 30 tide gages on the East Coast, Bermuda and Puerto Rico. The highest peak amplitude was recorded in Newport, R.I, where it reached just under a foot above sea level."

        "NOAA says one man who was fishing in Barnegat Inlet in New Jersey saw the current going out and then a six-foot wave. Three people standing on rocks were swept into the water. Two needed medical attention.

Tall waves, high winds.

What was it?

AP says that NOAA scientists are still trying to determine the cause but they have said the tsunami may have been related to a strong storm that moved through the region and offshore that day.

Here is the difference between a tsunami and a storm: a tsunami is a series of waves caused by the displacement of a large volume of a body of water, like an ocean or a big lake and in about 85 per cent cases, a tsunami is generated by earthquakes. A storm is a disturbance of the atmosphere with winds, rain, thunder, lightning or snow.

Then there is the very rare meteotsunami, a tsunami caused by weather.

Meteotsunamis, say scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have similar frequencies and oscillations to tsunamis, “except they occur in specific bays and inlets.”

So what happened on June 13 is still a mystery -- until scientists figure it out.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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