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Tsunami Hazards in Central America

Researchers: Conrad Lindholm, NORSAR, Wilfried Strauch, Instituteo Nicaraguense de Estudios Territioriales (INETER) and Mario Fernandez, Universidad de Costa Rica.

Written by Linda Rowan
8 November 2017


The Central American population centers face tsunami threats along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and at the shores of large lakes. Large earthquakes caused the most damaging tsunamis, however, landslides or volcanic eruptions can cause threatening tsunamis to communities around large lakes. Warning systems in Nicaragua and El Salvador rely on seismic and geodetic observations. In the near future, the Central American Tsunami Advisory Center (CATAC) will become operational and help reduce losses throughout the region.


Central America, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama, faces significant tsunami risks. The Pacific Coast is marked by the Cocos plate subducting beneath the Caribbean plate at the Middle American Trench, leading to large earthquakes and active volcanoes. The Caribbean Coast covers several complex zones that define the western edge of the Caribbean plate, and earthquakes on these boundaries are capable of generating tsunami waves.

About 50 significant tsunamis are known to have impacted Central America since 1539, however the study of past tsunamis is limited and there may have been more. The most damaging historic tsunamis have occurred on the Pacific Coast, related to large magnitude subduction zone earthquakes. There are several low-lying coastal communities such as Puntarenas, Costa Rica and Corinto Beach, Nicaragua where destructive tsunami waves could arrive within minutes of an earthquake. The local communities and the growing tourist communities need to be informed and prepared for such a situation.


Seismic networks and increasingly geodetic networks (GPS/GNSS ground-based receivers) provide the observations used to determine earthquake characteristics and the potential for a tsunami. Six countries in Central America have formed a consortium of national seismic networks along with global seismic networks supported by IRIS and GFZ. The cooperation has led to a virtual regional seismic network of several hundred seismic stations in Central America (Centro de Coordinación para la Prevención de los Desastres Naturales en América Central, CEPREDENAC).

The geodetic network consists of GPS/GNSS sites that are part of national systems and/or the COCONet regional GPS/GNSS network (developed by UNAVCO with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and many other countries of the Americas). The regional data center for the geodetic networks has been established at INETER in Nicaragua. Together the seismic and geodetic networks form the backbone for the Central American Tsunami Advisory Center (CATAC) and the national tsunami warning centers.

Besides the observations and the cooperation on national to regional warning centers, the countries of Central America are mapping tsunami hazards, providing education and information, and conducting emergency response drills. Nicaragua and El Salvador have mapped the tsunami hazard along their Pacific coastlines while Costa Rica has run simulations of tsunamis and floods in vulnerable places such as Puntarenas and Playa del Coco.

Now it is critical to maintain, enhance and coordinate observing networks, continue education and preparedness, advance warning systems and emergency response and better understand Earth processes that may generate a devastating tsunami in Central America.

Related Links


Tsunami hazard in Central America, C. Lindholm et al. in E. M., Chapman, N. A., Tappin, D. R. &Wallis, S. R. (eds) Tsunamis: Geology, Hazards and Risks, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 456, (2017) https://doi.org/10.1144/SP456.2 doi:10.1144/SP456.2.


tsunami, earthquake characteristics

Map Center
Central America

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Last modified: 2020-01-28  22:16:20  America/Denver