Researchers at the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, UIB-CSIC) develop a new model for predicting meteotsunamis

The combination of atmospheric and ocean models provides more predictive power to these phenomena

This is the first study that analyzes the whole meteotsunamis life cycle

The meteotsunamis are ocean waves with tsunami characteristics of atmospheric origin, not seismic. These waves can generate large amplitude oscillations in sea level. Occasionally, these oscillations can destroy harbors and bays.

Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB) researchers have participated in a study that develops a new forecasting system based on the joint use of numerical models of the atmosphere and ocean. This study was published in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“The new model analyzes the phenomenon throughout its whole cycle in the western Mediterranean. In the initial atmospheric stages, changes occur first in air pressure in the north of Africa, moving then to the Balearic Islands. After this, there is a phase coupling the atmosphere and ocean. This phase amplifies the wave as it propagates through the platform between Mallorca and Menorca. In the final stage, there is a resonance in the harbor”, explains IMEDEA researcher Joaquim Tintoré. Such phenomena have been studied for over 20 years in Ciutadella (Menorca), where it is called rissaga.

Currently, the meteotsunami warning system for Ciutadella is based on synoptic weather conditions on a large scale and complemented with the monitoring of cloud systems and pressure oscillations. This method predicts meteotsunami situations, but not its intensity.

“The study attempts to predict meteorological tsunamis basing on atmosphere-ocean numerical models, with high spatial and temporal resolution. This allows us to simulate the propagation of atmospheric pressure waves and the associated sea level response. This will provide quantitative information and improve the current forecasting system”, says researcher Lionel Renault, first author of the study.

Meteotsunamis in Menorca

In the last phase of the meteotsunami in the case of Ciutadella, the resonance between the external wave and the oscillation of the port causes sea level variations of one or two meters inside the port in 10 minutes. This causes strong currents, emptying and drying the final part of the port. In this way, the anchored boats are stranded on the seabed until the water re-enters. When the water returns it does so with such intensity that causes damage to boats moored.

“The meteotsunami occurs several times a year, mostly in summer and rarely cause major damage in ports and coves. The most common are associated to atmospheric gravity waves (ie, pressure changes) which travel at 100 km per hour. The most intense and destructive meteotsunamis could relate with convective storm cores” adds Tintoré.

In these severe cases, as in Ciutadella on June 15, 2006, on which this study is focused, the amplitude of the oscillation of the port can reach four meters. This oscillation, the most important of the last twenty years, caused serious injury to one hundred ships and sank another thirty-five. The total economic cost of the disaster was estimated at 10 million euros.

According to researchers, the development of high resolution atmospheric and oceanic prediction is crucial for the prediction of meteotsunamis in this region of the western Mediterranean. In addition to the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, CSIC-UIB) researchers from the Instalación Científico Singular del Sistema de Observación y Predicción Costera de las Islas Baleares (ICTS-Ocibar), the Meteorological Agency (AEMET) and the University of Rutgers in New Jersey (United States) have participated in the study.


Lionel Renault, Guillermo Vizoso, Agustí Jansà, John Wilkin, Joaquim Tintoré (2011): “Toward the Predictability of the Balearic Sea meteotsunamis in using nested regional Atmosphere and Ocean Models.” Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L10601, DOI: 10.1029/2011GL047361

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