Ancient Tsunami Smashed Europe, Middle East, Study Says

December 4, 2006

A massive tsunami smashed Mediterranean shores some 8,000 years ago when a giant chunk of volcano fell into the sea, researchers say.

Waves up to 165 feet (50 meters) high swept the eastern Mediterranean, triggered by a landslide on Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, according to the new study (see Italy map).

The research team says the natural disaster likely destroyed ancient communities, with a series of killer waves hitting the eastern Mediterranean coastline from Italy to Egypt.

Italian researchers based their findings on geological clues and evidence of a hastily abandoned Stone Age fishing settlement in Israel.

Maria Teresa Pareschi and colleagues at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa estimated the tsunami's strength by modeling the impact of the landslide from Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.

The team's calculation, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, shows that 6 cubic miles (25 cubic kilometers) of mountainside collapsed into the sea, generating giant waves that reached coasts as far away as the Middle East and North Africa.

The waves would have reached heights of about 165 feet (50 meters) off southern Italy, the team says, with a sea surge reaching 43 feet (13 meters) swamping parts of Greece and Libya.

Smaller waves hitting coasts farther away would also have had devastating power, according to Pareschi, who led the study.

"A tsunami wave height of a few meters can penetrate deeply inland," she said.

Long Waves

The team estimates the tsunami would have hit a maximum speed of around 450 miles an hour (725 kilometers an hour), taking a little over three and a half hours to reach what are now Israel and Egypt.

Evidence for the natural disaster comes mainly from disturbed sediments along the bottom of the Ionian Sea to the east of Sicily.

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