About Professor Simon Haslett

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Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Professor of Physical Geography and Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A tsunami in Cornwall?

Under two weeks ago on Monday 27th June, news was reported by the media of a tsunami hitting the coast of Cornwall and along the coast of southern England as far east as Hampshire. The height of the wave was estimated to be up to 1m, but many accounts suggest it was much smaller. Fishermen on beaches in Mounts Bay observed withdrawal of the sea before the wave came ashore and made a hasty retreat, which is very sensible.

The only footage I can find of the wave is from an estuary, which may be the Yealm:


Newspapers were quick to quote Dr Martin Davidson from Plymouth who suggested that the tsunami may have been caused by a submarine slide, which is possible. But given the numerous thunderstorms taking place within the region that week, it may be a meteorological tsunami. Indeed, this event is similar to an event that occurred in the region on 18th August 1892; the following is extracted from a scientific paper I co-authored on thunderstorm generated meteo-tsunami published in 2009:

"Haslett and Bryant (2009) present newspaper reports stating that “a series of tidal waves” occurred along the western English Channel coast in the estuary of the River Yealm where “a good deal of damage was done to boats moored in the river” (Penny Illustrated, 1892, p. 6). The Times (1892a) also reports this event in the River Yealm as well as stating that “there was a rapid rise in the River Fowey as a great tidal wave, but this immediately subsided” (p. 4). ...... The Times (1892b) report thunderstorms in the English Channel that day and Davison (1924) considers that they generated the large tsunami-like waves." (from Haslett et al., 2009, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth).

The British Geological Survey have produced a good evaluation report of the event and cite and extract from my paper (Haslett et al., 2009) as evidence for their preferred view that it was a meteo-tsunami.

Therefore, this small tsunami event could have been caused by an undersea landslide or, more likely perhaps, as a meteo-tsunami. It should be possible to analyse the meteorological conditions at the time to establish if that was the cause, but less so if it was a slide. This is an interesting event that highlights our ignorance of and risk from tsunami-like occurrences around the coast of the British Isles.

Less than a month before this event, on 29th May, I gave the Annual Kelliwic Lecture in Cornwall entitled "The Hell of Higher Water: tsunami and the Cornish coast"; I imagine my audience would not have expected a Cornish tsunami in the news so soon after it:
In this lecture I outline the history of tsunami in Cornwall, including the 1755 Lisbon event, but a number others too. Most of this is based on research that myself and co-author Dr Ted Bryant have published over the past 10 years or so. If anyone is interested, the main papers that relate to tsunamis in Cornwall are: