When the news broke that a tsunami was headed for Hawaii and California, I feared someone would be crazy enough to paddle out ahead of the massive wave and try to ride it. I was right. Turns out the physics of riding such a wave make it impossible even for a professional surfer. According to the University of Hawaii at Hilo, there are several reasons why it won't work:
1 – Tsunami waves are thicker than normal waves. A tsunami wave is huge - hundreds of miles long - and full of energy. It also moves at 500 mph. As the wave approaches the shoreline, the water on the front edge slows down, while the back end continues to speed along. As a result, the wave becomes extremely thick on the front end. Rather than forming nicely into a breaking, ridable wave with a face, it turns into a wall of mushy whitewater that barrels toward shore.
2- You can't surf in tsunami whitewater. That messy wall of whitewater eventually runs up over the land and keeps going until the energy is eventually drained out of the wave. Because it's all whitewater, there's nothing for the bottom of the surfboard to hold on to, so you'd essentially get bounced around in the foamy mess on the leading edge of the wave. Throw in all the debris the wave picks up along the way - along with a lack of control - and it's not a fun ride.
3 – You can't "duck dive" through the wave, either. Did you think you could let the wave wash over you? Not likely. Normally, when surfers want to get out of the way of a breaking wave, they plunge underneath it and let the wave, and the brunt of the wave's motion, wash over them. In the case of a tsunami, that's not possible because the entire water column, from the seafloor to the surface, is in motion. Worse still, the trough - or valley behind the wave - will be hundreds of miles behind the wave, and all that water is moving toward you. Bottom line: Once you're in front of the breaking wave, there's really no way to get around it ... which sends you back to reason No. 2. Not fun.
You can read the whole article here: Why you can't surf a tsunami.
For the few surfers in California caught in the 2- to 3-foot wave that struck Santa Cruz County today, luck be with you - always.
Photo credit: Xinhua Press/Corbis