As Seen on TV: Could a Hollywood-Sized Tsunami Hit Santa Monica?


On Monday night, the Fox Television show “9-1-1” was based around a 50-foot tsunami hitting the Southern California coast near Santa Monica.  The show employed the giant water tanks that were used to create the effects in the movie “Titanic.” The episode ended (to be continued!) with a cresting wave about to engulf the pier.

Entertaining stuff, to be sure. But reality? Could a tsunami this size really happen in Southern California?

Unless it’s caused by an asteroid plunging into the ocean, probably not.

The California Geological Survey has worked with other experts in the tsunami field for over a decade to determine the maximum tsunami threats which could impact each section of the California coast.  There are earthquake and landslide sources offshore of Southern California which could generate a tsunami that hits the coast in 10 minutes. However, there are no tsunami sources capable of creating the giant “tidal wave” portrayed in the TV show.

The largest locally-sourced tsunami which could hit Santa Monica would be about 8 feet tall, which could flood the beach and injure people if they do not immediately evacuate to higher ground.

The maximum tsunami possible in Santa Monica is about 15 feet high. Such a tsunami would be generated by a massive earthquake off the coast of Alaska, so people in Southern California would get 5-6 hours of warning — plenty of time to get to a higher, safe location.

The reality of tsunami hazards is not always represented correctly by Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous or that folks who live near or visit the beach shouldn’t learn about and prepare for future tsunamis.


If you really want to see how much flooding could occur along the California coast from the largest tsunamis, visit and take a look at our tsunami inundation maps for evacuation planning for your area of interest.

So, we hoped you enjoyed the TV show – the next episode, “Sink or Swim” – airs at 8 p.m. Monday, but make sure you understand the realistic tsunami hazards you could face and be prepared for them.

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