Rice U. Geophysicist Says Don't Worry About Tsunamis In Gulf Of Mexico

The chances of a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, hitting the Gulf Coast like the tsunami in Japan are very low. That's according to a local geophysicist who says the conditions required for such an event almost never happen on this side of the globe. David Pitman has more.

To produce a tsunami, there needs to be a massive, underwater earthquake.  One of those 'could' happen in the Caribbean, but they're very rare.  Dale Sawyer, Professor of Earth Science at Rice University, says big earthquakes are also an unusual occurrence on the side of Mexico that touches the Gulf.

"The area of Mexico that would be most likely to sustain very large earthquakes would be on the Pacific side.  And that would probably not affect the Gulf of Mexico at all."

Sawyer says there are two events that would likely produce a tsunami — each of them even more remote than a magnitude 8 or 9 earthquake.  One scenario is a portion of the Texas shelf breaking off and creating a large underwater landslide.

"The second is — 64 million years ago, a meteor impacted the Gulf of Mexico.  And, although we weren't here to observe it, it created a spectacularly large tsunami in the Gulf.  But those are all very, very rare events."

Sawyer says storm surges that come with tropical storms and hurricanes share some characteristics with tsunamis, and those surges are an actual threat for people who live along the Gulf.

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David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...