Black Swan: Mega-Tsunami

A Mega-Tsunami Is Coming; Can the East Coast Even Prepare?

Could a tsunami destroy everything from Boston to Miami? If it did, would we even stand a chance?
By: | July 30, 2018 • 9 min read

Scenario: La Palma earned the nickname “the beautiful island” — white sand beaches highlighted by black volcanic soil. An endless night sky filled with stars as far as the eye can see.

But beauty here is only skin deep.


Nestled on the western side of La Palma sits the Cumbre Vieja volcano, like a pot of water waiting to boil over. Its last big eruption was more than 50 years ago, but everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before it unleashes the beast inside.

It starts with tremors. Glasses rattle on kitchen tables while picture frames skew left and right. Tourists to La Palma brush it off, calling the jelly feeling “sea legs” — they are, after all, on an island.

But the locals know better and they hold their breath. When it does happen, the ash and lava spill out of the volcano’s mouth like a giant sigh. No one could have predicted what happens next.

The western side of the volcano cracks and splits; the steam builds up inside and pushes against the volcano’s walls. The pressure is too much; the entire western flank breaks off, the Atlantic Ocean eagerly swallowing every rock, stone and pebble as they freefall into its deep blue depths. The earth rumbles and the water begins to slosh around as its calm ebb and flow turns into frenzied splashing and crashing.

The waves grow. And they grow and they grow. To the naked eye, it looks like the heavens unleashed a curtain made of water — somehow the volcano’s landslide has produced a tsunami that reaches the sky.

And this mega-tsunami moves fast.

All 3,000 feet of water roars as it barrels away from La Palma’s coast toward the United States. As the most western island of the Canary Islands, La Palma sits eight to 10 hours away from the eastern shore by plane. It’s the one piece of good news: Residents have a window of time to evacuate.

But chaos breeds chaos, and soon the highways are clogged with cars, frightened families from Boston to Miami trying to flee inland. A final silver lining: The wave decreases as it sojourns across the Atlantic from a staggering 3,000 to a mere 160 feet.

The wave touches down, flowing onto beaches and flooding bays. Coastal buildings don’t stand a chance; water rushes inland 10 miles along the entire eastern seaboard. Homes are destroyed, countless hotels crumble under the force. Chemical plants that once churned out product by the oceanside spill their toxic waste into the sea.

Beaches up and down the coast account for billions of dollars in tourism revenue each summer. It looks like vacationers might not be able to return for decades thanks to the amount of oils and solvents released.

On top of that, the East Coast is home to 29 percent of the U.S. population. Now they are displaced — their homes destroyed, their cities flooded. Not everyone made it out in time.

It’s not the end of the world, but it very much feels like it.

Analysis: La Palma’s mega-tsunami is a disaster, no doubt. And — scarily enough — it’s not impossible.

In 1949, the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted along the coast of La Palma and caused an earthquake that created a mile-long fissure on its east side.

The force of the fissure then caused the volcano’s west side to slip six feet into the Atlantic Ocean. It has since remained in this position, its estimated 1.5 trillion metric tons waiting like a ticking time bomb.

Researcher and scientist Steven Ward, now a research geophysicist at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UC Santa Cruz, and Simon Day, a senior research associate at the Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction, University College London, first quantified the features of the La Palma mega-tsunami.

They looked at the geological structure of the volcano and created simulations of the event, which can be seen on Ward’s YouTube channel.

If circumstances align and the volcano erupts powerfully enough, the western half of the volcano could fall into the ocean and create this mega-tsunami scenario in full, the research concluded.

“La Palma is a volcanic island,” said Ward. “It’s built up from ash and lava that pushed out layers like a stack of shingles on a sloping roof. Sometimes, volcano sides become unstable and like that stack of shingles, part of the pile slides off. It’s a common thing [to have] huge pieces of debris fall off.”

“The unusual structural evolution of the volcano, revealed by changes in the distribution of eruption sites over its surface since about 10,000 years ago, could best be explained by the progressive development of a landslide surface under that western flank and consequent weakening,” added Day.

“Satellite radar data has shown that a large section of the west flank is continuing to move very slowly … despite the fact that it is not being pushed by magma rising to the surface within the volcano,” he said.

“La Palma has a lot of water in it,” Ward explained. “The thinking is that in some future eruption, hot magma will reach this water, turn it into steam and the steam will split the mountain.”


A landslide of this scale could send out a mega-tsunami-sized wave. Ward said the hard part is predicting if, or when, the landmass will actually slide into the Atlantic.

Such an event won’t likely come out of the blue, he said. There will be a buildup of volcanic and tectonic activity beforehand that will aid researchers in forecasting a potential disaster.

In fact, earlier this year, residents of the island feared the worst as La Palma encountered more than 40 mini-earthquakes within a 48-hour period. Large tremors stemming from Cumbre Vieja followed soon after, though the volcano never erupted.

A Catastrophe Too Big to Predict

A mega-tsunami is hard to predict and prepare for. On a smaller scale, tsunamis themselves are rare enough events.

“Usually you have significant property and clean-up — and BI damage or costs,” said Ed Mazman, president of property, Ironshore.

Specifically, Mazman said, coastal businesses are most at risk: “A lot of that is hospitality, hotels, resorts. This is a tremendous event, uncontrollable exposures.”

There are ways to prepare for a “typical” tsunami, but when it comes to an event like this and the size of the potential wave, “I don’t think we could really protect against it,” he said.

“It’s like a tornado. You could have a structure prepped for a tornado, but if it’s in the way of a CAT 5, that tornado’s going to win.” — Ed Mazman, president of property, Ironshore

“Firms are thinking about life safety over property damage. You can’t really protect property. If it’s in the path, if it’s close enough — it’s like a tornado. You could have a structure prepped for a tornado, but if it’s in the way of a CAT 5, that tornado’s going to win,” Mazman said.

The best example to look at in terms of damage done is Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in October 2012.

While Sandy gives an idea of the extent of damage to expect, a mega-tsunami still differs in one glaring way: the area impacted. This is not just one city bearing the brunt of the damage; anything in between Boston and Miami could feel the wrath of the tsunami.

“Every scenario [already modeled] seems to be limited to one geographic area, like a large metropolitan area. If a CAT 5 hurricane were to hit Miami, it’s $150 to $200 billion. This [mega-tsunami] would be at least 10 times that,” said Mazman.

The good news: There’s a window of time for those on the East Coast to evacuate before a mega-tsunami even touches down on land.

“A tsunami travels as fast as a jet airplane, 400 to 500 miles per hour. But the ocean’s pretty big. From La Palma to the East Coast, it would take eight to 10 hours for a mega-tsunami to get there,” Ward explained.

Ed Mazman, president of property, Ironshore

Mazman said that because of this extra time and the fact that the United States is a tech-savvy country, the coast might see a lower loss of life than anticipated from an event like this.

To put it into perspective, in late 2004, a tsunami hit Indonesia after the third-largest recorded earthquake rumbled its way through the Indian Ocean. Nearly 280,000 people were killed by waves measuring as high as 100 feet.

The residents only had 20 minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami hitting land to evacuate — not nearly enough time to even register a tsunami was on its way.

With La Palma’s mega-tsunami, however, Ward said there would be enough activity months in advance, leading up to that final landslide.

Measuring the Environmental Impact of a Mega-Tsunami

With East Coasters safely out of the way, it’s the clean-up that will take the longest.

Petroleum-based fuels and solvents will leave a lasting impact on the environment long after flood waters recede.

After Hurricane Harvey, the CAT 4 hurricane that hit Houston in 2017, several oil and chemical refineries were hit with huge penalties for environmental violations. House and shared water wells had to be cleared of growing bacteria. The air quality took a significant hit as well.


On top of pollutant issues, because of the size and scale of a mega-tsunami, many sea creatures might be displaced or run aground, disrupting deep-water ecosystems.

The scariest factor is the number of nuclear power plants concentrated on the East Coast. In 2011, a 50-foot tsunami hit Japan, disabling the power supply and cooling system for three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, causing them to melt down. Former residents are still waiting to return to the area.

With the potential for nearly 40 East Coast plants to melt down, some areas in the U.S. may never be inhabitable again.

Preparing for the Worst

Though La Palma’s mega-tsunami would be hard to predict and even harder to mitigate the risk, coastal properties can start by investing in flood and storm surge insurance, stabilizing structures with wind and water resilient materials, or adding in water sensors.

Clients would have insurance and be prepared for flood, Mazman said, “but this would have a huge financial impact beyond the insurance industry. It would be interesting to see the view from CAT modeling firms on an event of this magnitude.

“I can’t imagine a loss of that scale. It would be a world-wide disaster. Insurance would not be able to cover enough.”

However, Mazman said: “The one way to prepare would be to add in a warning system. The Pacific and Indian Oceans have one. Does the Atlantic?” &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

The Profession

For This Pharmaceutical Risk Director, Managing Risk Means Being Part of the Mission to Save Lives

Meet Eric Dobkin, director, insurance and risk management, for Merck & Co. Inc.
By: | September 28, 2018 • 5 min read

R&I: What was your first job?
My first job out of undergrad was as an actuarial trainee at Chubb.I was a math major in school, and I think the options for a math major coming out are either a teacher or an actuary, right? Anyway, I was really happy when the opportunity at Chubb presented itself. Fantastic company. I learned a lot there.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?
After I went back to get my MBA, I decided I wanted to work in corporate finance. When I was interviewing, one of the opportunities was with Merck. I really liked their mission, and things worked out. Given my background, they thought a good starting job would be in Merck’s risk management group. I started there, rotated through other areas within Merck finance but ultimately came back to the Insurance & Risk Management group. I guess I’m just one of those people who enjoy this type of work.


R&I: What is risk management doing right?
I think the community is doing a good job of promoting education, sharing ideas and advancing knowledge. Opportunities like this help make us all better business partners. We can take these ideas and translate them into actionable solutions to help our companies.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?
I think we have made good advancements in articulating the value proposition of investing in risk management, but much more can be done. Sometimes there is such a focus on delivering immediate value, such as cost savings, that risk management does not get appropriate attention (until something happens). We need to develop better tools that can reinforce that risk management is value-creating and good for operational efficiency, customers and shareholders.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?
I’d actually say there hasn’t been as much change as I would have hoped. I think the industry speaks about innovation more often than it does it. To be fair, at Merck we do have key partners that are innovators, but some in the industry are less enthusiastic to consider new approaches. I think there is a real need to find new and relevant solutions for large, complex risks.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?
Cyber risk. While it’s not emerging anymore, it’s evolving, dynamic and deserves the attention it gets. Merck was an early adopter of risk transfer solutions for cyber risk, and we continue to see insurance as an important component of the overall cyber risk management framework. From my perspective, this risk, more than any other, demands continuous forward-thinking to ensure we evolve solutions.

R&I: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Sticking with the cyber theme, I’d say navigating through a cyber incident is right up there. In June 2017, Merck experienced a network cyber attack that led to a disruption of its worldwide operations, including manufacturing, research and sales. It was a very challenging environment. And managing the insurance claim that resulted has been extremely complex. But at the same time, I have learned a tremendous amount in terms of how to think about the risk, enterprise resiliency and how to manage through a cyber incident.

R&I: What advice might you give to students or other aspiring risk managers?
Have strong intellectual curiosity. Always be willing to listen and learn. Ask “why?” We deal with a lot of ambiguity in our business, and the more you seek to understand, the better you will be able to apply those learnings toward developing solutions that meet the evolving risk landscape and needs of the business.


R&I: What role does technology play in your company’s approach to risk management?
We’re continuing to look for ways to apply technology. For example, being able to extract and leverage data that resides in our systems to evaluate risk, drive efficiencies and make things like property-value reporting easier. We’re also looking to utilize data visualization tools to help gain insights into our risks.

R&I: What are your goals for the next five to 10 years of your career?
I think, at this time, I would like to continue to learn and grow in the type of work I do and broaden my scope of responsibilities. There are many opportunities to deliver value. I want to continue to focus on becoming a stronger business partner and help enable growth.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?
I’d say right now Star Wars is top on my list. It has been magical re-watching and re-living the series I watched as a kid through the eyes of my children.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in? When I was about 15, I went to a New York Rangers versus Philadelphia Flyers game at the Philadelphia Spectrum. I wore my Rangers jersey. I would not do that again.

Eric Dobkin, director, insurance & risk management, Merck & Co. Inc

R&I: What is it about this work you find most fulfilling or rewarding?
I am passionate about Merck’s mission of saving and improving lives. “Inventing for Life” is Merck’s tagline. It’s funny, but most people don’t associate “inventing” with medicine. But Merck has been inventing medicines and vaccines for many of the world’s most challenging diseases for a long time. It’s amazing to think the products we make can help people fight terrible diseases like cancer. Whatever little bit I can do to help advance that mission is very fulfilling and rewarding.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?
Ha! My kids think I make medicine. I guess they think that because I work for Merck. I suppose if even in a small way I can contribute to Merck’s mission of saving and improving lives, I am good with that. &

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]