The sudden vertical rise of the seabed by several metres during the earthquake displaced massive volumes of water, resulting in a tsunami that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean. A tsunami which causes damage far away from its source is sometimes called a teletsunami and is much more likely to be produced by vertical motion of the seabed than by horizontal motion.
The tsunami, like all others, behaved very differently in deep water than in shallow water. In deep ocean water, tsunami waves form only a small hump, barely noticeable and harmless, which generally travels at a very high speed of 500 to 1,000 km/h (310 to 620 mph); in shallow water near coastlines, a tsunami slows down to only tens of kilometres per hour, but in doing so forms large destructive waves. Scientists investigating the damage in Aceh found evidence that the wave reached a height of 24 metres (80 ft) when coming ashore along large stretches of the coastline, rising to 30 metres (100 ft) in some areas when travelling inland.
Radar satellites recorded the heights of tsunami waves in deep water: at two hours after the earthquake, the maximum height was 60 centimetres (2 ft). These are the first such observations ever made. Unfortunately these observations could not be used to provide a warning, since the satellites were not built for that purpose and the data took hours to analyze.
According to Tad Murty, vice-president of the Tsunami Society, the total energy of the tsunami waves was equivalent to about five megatons of TNT (20 petajoules). This is more than twice the total explosive energy used during all of World War II (including the two atomic bombs), but still a couple of orders of magnitude less than the energy released in the earthquake itself. In many places the waves reached as far as 2 km (1.2 mi) inland.
Because the 1,600 km (1,000 mi) fault affected by the earthquake was in a nearly north-south orientation, the greatest strength of the tsunami waves was in an east-west direction. Bangladesh, which lies at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, had very few casualties despite being a low-lying country relatively near the epicenter. It also benefited from the fact that the earthquake proceeded more slowly in the northern rupture zone, greatly reducing the energy of the water displacements in that region.
Coasts that have a landmass between them and the tsunami’s location of origin are usually safe; however, tsunami waves can sometimes diffract around such landmasses. Thus, the Indian state of Kerala was hit by the tsunami despite being on the western coast of India, and the western coast of Sri Lanka also suffered substantial impacts. Also distance alone was no guarantee of safety, as Somalia was hit harder than Bangladesh despite being much farther away.
Because of the distances involved, the tsunami took anywhere from fifteen minutes to seven hours to reach the various coastlines. The northern regions of the Indonesian island of Sumatra were hit very quickly, while Sri Lanka and the east coast of India were hit roughly 90 minutes to two hours later. Thailand was also struck about two hours later despite being closer to the epicentre, because the tsunami travelled more slowly in the shallow Andaman Sea off its western coast.
The tsunami was noticed as far as Struisbaai in South Africa, some 8,500 km (5,300 mi) away, where a 1.5 m (5 ft) high tide surged on shore about 16 hours after the earthquake. It took a relatively long time to reach this spot at the southernmost point of Africa, probably because of the broad continental shelf off South Africa and because the tsunami would have followed the South African coast from east to west. The tsunami also reached Antarctica, where tidal gauges at Japan’s Showa Base recorded oscillations of up to a metre (3 ft 3 in), with disturbances lasting a couple of days.
Some of the tsunami’s energy escaped into the Pacific Ocean, where it produced small but measurable tsunamis along the western coasts of North and South America, typically around 20 to 40 cm (7.9 to 16 in). At Manzanillo, Mexico, a 2.6 m (8 ft 6 in) crest-to-trough tsunami was measured. As well, the tsunami was large enough to be detected in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This puzzled many scientists, as the tsunamis measured in some parts of South America were larger than those measured in some parts of the Indian Ocean. It has been theorized that the tsunamis were focused and directed at long ranges by the mid-ocean ridges which run along the margins of the continental plates.