Tsunamis: does the answer lie in the magnetic fields?

Tsunamis may be detected in real-time by satellites. Chinese researchers believe to have created a model that simulates the effect of huge ocean waves on the Earth's magnetic field.


Time is everything, when it comes to avoiding the brutal impact of tsunamis. These large and rare waves, which are often associated with earthquakes, are usually devastating.

When a body of salt water moves through the Earth's magnetic field its conductive nature induces a small anomaly in the field, which can be monitored by unmanned near-space airships, low Earth orbit satellites or high altitude balloons. These options are close enough to the ocean to detect the magnetic signal of the wave.

Benlong Wang and Hua Liu, researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, developed a way of spotting magnetic anomalies associated with the events and then estimate the wavelength and height of the tsunami waves.

Nowadays, seismic detection methods take about six minutes to process. Magnetic monitoring is able of making the continuous tracking of the wave as it moves in the open ocean.

"The next step of our work will focus on the realistic tsunami wave history at Easter Island", Wang tells PhysicsWorld.com.

The team will use magnetic data gathered from this region in conjunction with global tsunami propagation models to further its understanding of the connection between magnetic anomalies and the sea-surface variations.

Learn why you can't surf tsunami waves.