Weather Week: Exploring Summer Threats on WPRI.com

What are meteotsunamis, and how common are they?

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Weather Week: Exploring Summer Threats on WPRI.com

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — There is a special kind of wave that can hit the shores of Rhode Island, and this wave is all about the weather.

It’s called a meteotsunami.

“There is a different kind of tsunami that’s not generated by an earthquake, rather, it can be generated by the atmosphere,” meteotsunami expert Dr. Richard Yablonsky said.

Sid Abbruzzi has been surfing for 58 years and constantly watches how the weather will impact the waves. During hurricane season, he likes hurricanes that get close, but not too close.

“We would love them to stay off the coast, where we would not get the destruction but we would get the wave size,” Abbruzzi said.

So what about surfing a tsunami in New England waters?

Yablonsky says meteotsunamis are not nearly as destructive as the giant tsunamis that make headlines around the world.

A meteotsunami usually starts with high pressure generated from downdrafts in a line of thunderstorms moving offshore, but the speed is critical.

“If the thunderstorms are moving at the same speed that the waves move, then you can generate a larger and a larger wave,” Yablonsky explained.

To stop the wave from going out to sea, the continental shelf can bounce it back to our coastline. That’s what happened in 2013 when Eyewitness News reported how a meteotsunami damaged a boat in Wickford Harbor.

Yablonsky says the wave height was only about two feet but the combination of the faster current and the element of surprise was enough to create troubled waters.

“You may be out near your boat or even in the water, and all of a sudden a wave comes in rather quickly and catches you off-guard and can do some damage,” Yablonsky said.

It’s impossible to predict exactly when a meteotsunami will strike, but there are several atmospheric ingredients to look for. They include a fast-moving line of thunderstorms moving offshore to our south, like the storms that pushed off the coast of New Jersey in 2013.

Yablonsky points out there is likely meteotsunami activity off the East Coast roughly two times a year, but it often goes unrecorded if the waves are small or no one is in the water to notice it.

For Abbruzzi, who owns Water Brothers in Newport, predicting and surfing the next Rhode Island meteotsunami does not seem realistic. In fact, while the continental shelf plays a key role in kicking up Rhode Island meteotsunamis, it’s actually bad for surfing.

“Our continental shelf doesn’t do us any favors,” Abbruzzi said. “Meaning like a 20-foot swell coming at the East Coast, once it hits the shelf, might even be dropped in half.”

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