Application of diatoms to tsunami studies.

Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in 1755 (From Wikipedia Commons)

Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in 1755 (From Wikipedia Commons)

Diatoms are unicellular algae with golden-brown photosynthetic pigments with a fossil record that extends back to Early Jurassic. The most distinctive feature of diatoms is their siliceous skeleton known as frustule that comprise two valves. They live in aquatic environments, soils, ice, attached to trees or anywhere with humidity and their remains accumulates forming diatomite, a type of soft sedimentary rock. Diatoms are the dominant marine primary producers in the oceans and play a key role in the carbon cycle and in the removal of biogenic silica from surface waters. But diatoms are also a valuable tool in reconstructing paleoenvironmental changes because of their sensitivity to environmental factors including salinity, tidal exposure, substrate, vegetation, pH, nutrient supply, and temperature found in specific coastal wetland environments. Through years, diatoms become part of the coastal sediments, resulting in buried assemblages that represent an environmental history that can span thousands of years. Diatoms alone cannot differentiate tsunami deposits from other kinds of coastal deposits, but they can provide valuable evidence for the validity of proposed tsunami deposits (Dura et al., 2015).

Electron microscope image of Diatoms from high altitude aquatic environments of Catamarca Province, Argentina (From Maidana and Seeligmann, 2006)

Electron microscope image of Diatoms from high altitude aquatic environments of Catamarca Province, Argentina (From Maidana and Seeligmann, 2006)

Tsunami deposits can be identify by finding anomalous sand deposits in low-energy environments such as coastal ponds, lakes, and marshes. Those anomalous deposits are diagnosed using several criteria such as floral (e.g. diatoms) and faunal fossils within the deposits. The delicate valves of numerous diatom species may be unusually well preserved when removed from surface deposits and rapidly buried by a tsunami.

Diatoms within the tsunami deposits are generally composed of mixed assemblages, because tsunamis inundated coastal and inland areas, eroding, transporting, and depositing brackish and freshwater taxa. Nonetheless, problems differentiating autochthonous (in situ) and allochthonous (transported) diatoms complicates reconstructions. In general, planktonic diatoms are considered allochthonous components in modern and fossil coastal wetland assemblages, while benthic taxa can be considered as autochthonous. Diatoms can also be used to estimate tsunami run-up  by mapping the landward limit of diatom taxa transported by the tsunami.



Hemphill-Haley, E., 1996. Diatoms as an aid in identifying late Holocene tsunami deposits. The Holocene 6, 439–448.

Tina Dura, Eileen Hemphill-Haley, Yuki Sawai, Benjamin P. Horton, The application of diatoms to reconstruct the history of subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis, Earth-Science Reviews 152 (2016) 181–197. DOI: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2015.11.017

Armstrong, H. A., Brasier, M. D., 2005. Microfossils (2nd Ed). Blackwell, Oxford.

Barron, J.A. (2003). Appearance and extinction of planktonic diatoms during the past 18 m.y. in the Pacific and Southern oceans. “Diatom Research” 18, 203-224


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