Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences (Mar 2008)

The Papua New Guinea tsunami of 17 July 1998: anatomy of a catastrophic event

  • D. R. Tappin,
  • P. Watts,
  • S. T. Grilli

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 8, no. 2
pp. 243 – 266


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The Papua New Guinea (PNG) tsunami of July 1998 was a seminal event because it demonstrated that relatively small and relatively deepwater Submarine Mass Failures (SMFs) can cause devastating local tsunamis that strike without warning. There is a comprehensive data set that proves this event was caused by a submarine slump. Yet, the source of the tsunami has remained controversial. This controversy is attributed to several causes. Before the PNG event, it was questionable as to whether SMFs could cause devastating tsunamis. As a result, only limited modelling of SMFs as tsunami sources had been undertaken, and these excluded slumps. The results of these models were that SMFs in general were not considered to be a potential source of catastrophic tsunamis. To effectively model a SMF requires fairly detailed geological data, and these too had been lacking. In addition, qualitative data, such as evidence from survivors, tended to be disregarded in assessing alternative tsunami sources. The use of marine geological data to identify areas of recent submarine failure was not widely applied. <br><br> The disastrous loss of life caused by the PNG tsunami resulted in a major investigation into the area offshore of the devastated coastline, with five marine expeditions taking place. This was the first time that a focussed, large-scale, international programme of marine surveying had taken place so soon after a major tsunami. It was also the first time that such a comprehensive data set became the basis for tsunami simulations. The use of marine mapping subsequently led to a larger involvement of marine geologists in the study of tsunamis, expanding the knowledge base of those studying the threat from SMF hazards. This paper provides an overview of the PNG tsunami and its impact on tsunami science. It presents revised interpretations of the slump architecture based on new seabed relief images and, using these, the most comprehensive tsunami simulation of the PNG event to date. Simulation results explain the measured runups to a high degree. The PNG tsunami has made a major impact on tsunami science. It is one of the most studied SMF tsunamis, yet it remains the only one known of its type: a slump.