What Would Really Happen if a Tsunami Hit the Bay Area?

8 min
A 250-foot tsunami surges toward the Golden Gate Bridge in the summer action movie 'San Andreas.' (Warner Brothers)

In 2015, Steven Horowitz was watching one of the summer's big blockbuster action flicks, "San Andreas." In the movie, the San Andreas fault shifts, triggering a magnitude 9.6 earthquake in San Francisco. Disaster ensues -- and for the rest of the movie we watch as all of the West Coast’s greatest landmarks are destroyed one by one in an epic, computer-generated spectacle.

“I was sitting there watching the giant tsunami course through the Golden Gate and into the bay,” he says. “I looked at that and thought: Wouldn’t there be some kind of dissipation coming through the Golden Gate?”

He asked Bay Curious:

If a tsunami were to hit the Golden Gate, what would be its real effect on communities facing the San Francisco Bay?

It's All About Our Faults

Despite the terrifying image of a 250-foot wave about to wash over the Golden Gate Bridge, tsunamis do not actually pose a considerable threat to the Bay Area.

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It all has to do with the kinds of geologic faults that we have (and don’t have).

Tsunamis are caused when one tectonic plate slides underneath another -- a process called subduction. This slow movement is happening all the time, but sometimes a plate will get stuck and pressure starts to build. When it finally lets go, there’s an underwater earthquake that can move the seafloor up and down, sending a wave to the surface of the ocean.

But the San Andreas Fault is different. It’s called a slip-strike fault because the two plates slide past each other horizontally. Of course, whenever plates move, the ground shakes. But here, there is no subduction and little displaced ocean.

Meaning no killer tsunamis. Even San Francisco’s infamous 1906 earthquake generated only a 4-inch wave at the Presidio gauge station.

Small Waves Still Pack a Punch

Although they aren’t generated here, tsunamis do occasionally hit our shores. Since 1854, more than 71 tsunamis have been recorded in San Francisco Bay. Most were generated by earthquakes in subduction zones near Russia, Japan or Alaska.

Eric Geist, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, says that size is the most important factor in evaluating risk.

“We can look at anything, from huge waves to micro-tsunamis, that you’d never see with your eyes but our instruments can detect,” he says.

The worst tsunami to hit the Bay Area was triggered in 1964 by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Alaska, Geist says, that killed 11 people in Crescent City. That wave rolled in at just under 4 feet and damaged marinas and private boats in Marin County.

The infamous 2011 tsunami that devastated parts of Japan also arrived in the East Bay 10 ten hours later at just over a foot in height, and caused millions of dollars of damage in Crescent City.

The 2011 Japanese tsunami, photographed as it arrived in Emeryville
The 2011 Japanese tsunami, photographed as it arrived in Emeryville. See video of the tsunami. (Steven Winter/Flickr)

The Cascadia subduction zone, which runs roughly from Mendocino County to Vancouver Island, could also produce a massive earthquake and tsunami. But Geist says it’s unclear how a tsunami from “The Really Big One” would affect the Bay Area.

“Oregon, Washington and California north of Eureka would really bear the brunt of that tsunami,” he explains.

But What If a Big One Arrived?

Although it’s unlikely, Steven Ward, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has created a series of animations to show how a big tsunami might spread through San Francisco Bay.

In Ward’s simulations, the incoming wave stands just over 16 feet tall. This is much larger than historical tsunamis, but Geist agrees that a wave this size is theoretically possible.

Approaching the Golden Gate at 55 mph, the wave would first hit the outlying areas of Point Reyes National Seashore and Montara. It would then start to flood low-lying areas like Half Moon Bay.

“It’s not like splash and dash,” explains Ward. “When the water comes in, it’s going to flood.”

It would feel like a 12-hour tidal cycle was packed into an hour.

“And it will do as much damage when it goes back out and drags along cars and debris,” he adds.

A 30-foot-high Tsunami would barely reach the top of the pylon on the Golden Gate Bridge.
A 30-foot-high tsunami would barely reach the top of the pylon on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Salim Virji/Flickr)

The original wave and splashbacks from shore would then start to pile up as they squeeze through the 1-mile-wide Golden Gate. In Ward’s simulations, the wave reaches a maximum height of about 30 feet.

“That’s barely to the top the pylon,” says Ward, who is confident that the bridge would have no trouble withstanding the wave energy. “It probably wouldn’t even touch the steel.”

Finally, the wave would fan out into San Francisco Bay. Parts of Crissy Field, Mission Bay and the Marina could see significant flooding, but by the time it reached Treasure Island or the East Bay, the wave would be less than 3 feet tall. It would probably not even make it to the South Bay.

Inundation maps for coastal counties are a great resource for understanding how high ocean waters could rise near you. Here's San Francisco.

Red regions of San Francisco may be vulnerable to inundation by a tsunami.
Red regions may be vulnerable to inundation by a tsunami. (Cal EMA)

 

Verdict: The Bay Area Is Relatively Safe

Steven Horowitz, who asked Bay Curious the question, was glad to hear that the tsunami would be nothing like the movie.

“By the time it gets to Berkeley, which is where I’m sitting right now, I think I’m pretty safe,” he says. “Sounds like it’s not going to come rushing up University Avenue.”

Bay Area residents can also rest assured that there have been no recorded deaths from tsunami-related events in San Francisco. And even a worst-case-scenario Cascadia tsunami would take several hours to reach the city, providing ample time to mobilize a response.

And just in case, the City and County of San Francisco has a tsunami plan in place. It includes a strategy for evacuating people from vulnerable areas like Ocean Beach, coordinating basic services (like shelter, water, food, and medical attention) and performing search and rescue.

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Still, “if you get a warning and are in a tsunami zone, follow the evacuation instructions,” says Ward. “What do you have to lose, a couple hours of your time?”