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On this page: How tsunami develop, tsunami effects, tsunami types, What we are doing, Coromandel Peninsula and Firth of Thames Tsunami Hazards, Waikato west coast Tsunami Hazards, useful links

Also in this topic: Tsunami flooding and evacuation zones at popular beaches

Tsunami are giant waves that can threaten people and property near coastal areas. They can occur after large disturbances such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and deep sea landslides. Find out more about tsunami and why they are a natural hazard in coastal areas of the Waikato region.

How tsunami develop

A tsunami is made up of a series of ocean waves of extremely long wavelength. They are triggered by large disturbances such as earthquakes, undersea volcanic eruptions or deep sea landslides.

Figure 1 below shows the amplitude, trough and crest of a tsunami wave in relation to the sea floor and still water level. Note how the wave shape changes and the height increases as it approaches the coastline. Diagram showing the processes involved in a tsunami approaching a coastline








Figure 1: Change in tsunami wave shape and height as it approaches land.

Effects of tsunami

Tsunami are a threat to people and property in coastal and low-lying estuarine areas. The waves travel quickly, rapidly flooding and damaging coastal communities, picking up debris as they go. Fast moving waves can quickly destroy homes and communities. Tsunami also create seiching in harbours and confined estuaries.

Tsunami waves can travel inland along river beds as continuous single standing waves due to the energy contained within the wave. This puts smaller inland communities at risk and contaminates rivers with saltwater.

A tsunami can threaten 'lifelines' services such as water, power, telecommunication and transportation networks. Find out more about managing Lifelines to deal with unexpected emergencies or natural hazards.

Tsunami types

There are two types of tsunami that affect the New Zealand coastline:

  • Near Source:
    • Local: travel time between the source - such as an earthquake on a fault line just offshore - and impact is one hour or less.
    • Regional: travel time between the source and impact is between one and three hours.
  • Distant source: travel time between the source –such as South America or Japan – and impact is greater than three hours.

Distance source tsunami

While Distant source tsunami are unlikely to cause significant inundation, the effects of the tsunami  ‘surge’ up estuaries, harbours and marinas can still be significant, such as those that occurred in the Santa Cruz Harbour in California following the 2011 Japan tsunami. Although the tsunami ‘waves’ in this event were relatively small in height (compared to open coast wind generated waves), the amount of energy contained within the waves, even after travelling some 14 hours across the Pacific Ocean caused significant damage to boats and marina infrastructure.


Distant source tsunami are often triggered from sites along the Pacific Ocean’s ‘Ring of Fire’ where tectonic plates slide against and under one another (subduction), often causing earthquakes. Along this ‘Ring of Fire’ there are four main sources for large earthquakes that have affected the New Zealand coastline in the past:

  • Alaska - Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
  • South America - the subduction zone west of South America between Ecuador and Chile.
  • Tonga-Kermadec - the Tonga-Kermadec Trench.
  • Kamchatca-Kuril - in the northwest Pacific Ocean from Japan to East Kamchatka.

Figure 2 below shows the travel-time in hours for a tsunami originating either from Alaska or Chile:

Map of the Pacific Ocean showing likely tsunami sources and travel-times
Figure 2: Tsunami source areas and travel-times (hours).

The long travel times of distant source tsunami makes it easier to predict their effects, and evacuate low-lying coastal communities.

Near source tsunami

Near source tsunami can be caused by:

  • earthquakes occurring close to the coastline
  • deep sea landslides just off the New Zealand continental shelf
  • volcanic eruptions.

Near source tsunami have a travel time of up to three hours, but can be an hour or less. This makes it more difficult to evacuate people to safe, high areas before the tsunami reaches the coast.

What we are doing

The effects of a tsunami are likely to be experienced by all coastal communities within the Waikato Region. To reduce the risks to these communities Waikato Regional Council:

  • Is partnering with Thames Coromandel District Council and Hauraki District Council to identify, model and communicate on tsunami hazards in the Coromandel Peninsula and Firth of Thames.
  • Partnered with Waikato District Council and WEL Networks by commissioning an investigation to assess tsunami hazards on the west coast of the Waikato Region.
  • Work with local authorities, the Civil Defence Emergency Management Group and emergency services to:
    • minimise the risk and damage to communities from tsunami
    • prepare people for a tsunami and develop emergency response plans through our Civil Defence responsibilities.

Crown Research Institutes are researching historical tsunami and their effects on the coastline.

For policy information on natural hazards, see our Regional Policy Statement.

Coromandel Peninsula and Firth of Thames Tsunami Hazards

Work on assessing and communicating tsunami hazards and risks is being progressively developed by Waikato Regional Council in partnership with Thames-Coromandel District Council and Hauraki District Council.

Scientific work from 2006 to 2011 initially focussed on Whitianga because it is most at risk from the impacts of tsunami. Since 2011, studies and public open days have been completed for Tairua and Pauanui, Whangamata and Whiritoa, Matarangi and Whangapoua. Opito Bay, Otama Beach, Kuaotunu/Rings Beach, Kennedy Bay and Cooks Beach. Tsunami hazard modelling has also been completed for Port Charles, and for the western coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Firth of Thames.

Using the latest information, knowledge and tsunami computer models, scientists have been able to determine that the greatest risk of significant tsunami inundation to the Coromandel's eastern coastline will come from earthquakes occurring along the Tonga-Kermadec Trench, and that local faults may present the biggest risk with the Firth of Thames. 

Waikato west coast Tsunami Hazards

A 2015 study to identify the risk of tsunami affecting Port Waikato, Raglan Harbour and Aotea Harbour has found wave heights will be relatively small, but inundation (flooding) may affect low-lying areas.


Click here to read more about Waikato west coast Tsunami Hazards.

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