For almost a week, the world has watched in horror as Japan has dealt with the effects of both a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and a large tsunami that struck shortly afterward.
A tsunami can occur in any large body of water. That leaves the question: could one happen here?
Dr. Alexander Gates serves as the chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rutgers-Newark, and is co-author of the book, "Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes New Edition". He explains that tsunamis can form almost anywhere under the right circumstances.
"Tsunamis form when something offsets the seafloor. It's like it builds a step in the ocean surface, and the whole water column is lifted up, and then it clears off," he said. "Anything from an earthquake to a meteorite could generate this big wave, and cause phenomenal damage after it comes ashore."
According to Gates there is no historical record of a large scale tsunami hitting the Jersey Shore, but he warns that one is still possible. He even suggests that a 'doomsday scenario' is a realistic possibility because of a volcano over 3,500 miles away.
"There's a volcano in the Canary Islands called Cumbre Vieja, and if that has a landslide, trouble will begin. If the side gives way, and it slides into the ocean, it could generate a big wave that would devastate the east coast," he said. "The volcano has been there a long time, and it hasn't happened yet, but it's a realistic possibility."
Meteorologist Steven DiMartino of NyNjPaweather.com, warns of another doomsday scenario. "If a large chunk of land off Africa falls off into the Atlantic, (and it's expected to do so in the next hundred years) it would be catastrophic to the east coast," he wrote in an email.
Gates worries about a lack of preparedness on the East Coast. "We're not prepared at all for a tsunami. If one hit today, it would be as devastating as the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in December 2004. We're not prepared, and we have a larger population. It would be absolutely catastrophic, and like nothing we've ever seen before" he said.
And, the East Coast doesn't have a complex warning system in the event of a tsunami. "Nobody was more prepared for this sort of event than Japan was, and we're watching them struggle with the after effects. We're not even close here. We don't have a strong enough system, at all, " Gates warned.
The National Weather Service sponsors a program called TsunamiReady. To become a certified community, the city must establish a formal tsunami plan. In addition, they must hold emergency exercises like planning ways to develop and distribute warnings. Although TsunamiReady could drastically help in an emergency situation, it reports that only 83 sites in the United States were "tsunami ready" as of March 2. The closest site to Toms River is Norfolk, VA.
As for fears of an earthquake, it has been years since New Jersey has been affected by one right off our coast. Gates referenced an quake in 1929 that hit Southern Canada. "People in Canada were killed after the resulting tsunami, and there was another way back in 1889 in Charleston, SC. Residents along the coast have to purchase tsunami insurance there," he said.
Experts say that it would be a little naive to assume that the Earth has entered an active earthquake pattern. Dr. John Ebel heads the Weston Observatory at Boston College, and says that just because one hit (Japan) doesn't mean that we're more likely to see future quakes. "We have seen several large quakes in recent years. But earthquakes could happen at anytime, really," he said in an interview.