Scientists at Newcastle University, led by Professor Robin Johnson, studied the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand when an ocean earthquake triggered a long surface wave that resulted in six massive consecutive wave fronts.
The third wave, the largest, reached a height of more than 65 feet and, among other things, lifted a train from its tracks along the Sri Lankan coastline, killing nearly 1,000 people.
Johnson and Professor Adrian Constantin of the University of Vienna, said they discovered that the number and height of the tsunami waves hitting the shoreline depends critically on the shape of the initial surface wave in deep water.
"We have shown that it is possible to use the initial wave pattern to work out how the wave will evolve and, importantly, how it might interact with the complicated motions close inshore to produce the tsunamis that we experience," said Johnson. "With a time delay of maybe two or three hours between the initial wave trigger and the tsunami hitting the shore, this could prove vital."
The research appears in the journal Fluid Dynamics Research.