Earth System Science Education Alliance
Current Learners & Faculty Login
navigation image


Geosphere, Lithosphere, Oceans



The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake took place on December 26. The earthquake occurred on what is called Boxing Day, a term meaning to give a gift box to those who provided service during the year. The earthquake registered a magnitude of 9.1 to 9.3, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. It involved a megathrust earthquake that involved nearly 1000 miles of rupture along the subduction zone where the Burma Plate and India Plates meet. The resulting tsunami produced waves of up to 30 meters and killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries.

A tsunami involves the movement of water waves along the sea floor after a large undersea disturbance. The tsunami waves move like the ripples on a pond when a rock strikes the surface of the water. On the open ocean, the tsunami waves may travel as fast as 720 km/hr (about 450 mph) along the bottom of the ocean. As the tsunami waves reach shallow water, the height of the waves grows dramatically, up to 30 meters (about 100 feet), inundating the seashore with the tremendous power of a large amount of water traveling at great speed.

National Geographic reports that tsunamis have been relatively rare in the Indian Ocean, at least in human memory. They are most prevalent in the Pacific. But every ocean has experienced the scourges. North America is no stranger to tsunamis. Based on scientific evidence, it is believed that a 9.0 earthquake occurred in the Pacific Northwest in 1700. Japanese scientists have presented evidence that a tsunami struck a Japanese island as a result of this earthquake. In 1960 the Good Friday earthquake in Alaska had a magnitude of 9.2. One of the most powerful earthquakes to occur in the U.S., it caused severe damage and killed more than 120 people. Damages exceeded $120 million.

Preparation for a tsunami requires coordination between emergency managers, policy makers, community planners, scientists, engineers and other professionals. After intensive, massive events like the Boxing Day Tsunami, stakeholders are still scrambling to limit the impact of future events of this magnitude. Your ESS analysis of the Boxing Day Tsunami will provide needed background for protection and readiness in the event of a North American tsunami.



Your team's work will assist in developing procedures to mitigate impact on humans and their infrastructure during future tsunamis. Your team has been asked to develop specific tsunami preparation and mitigation procedures for a Pacific Coast city of your choosing.


Date: 8/18/2009

Scenario Images:

Earthquake Spawns Tsunamis
Images of the Boxing Day Tsunami on the island nation of Sri Lanka.

Images from: NASA Earth Observatory.

Burma Plate Subduction Zone
Subduction zones are destructive plate boundaries - sites where it is believed that plates are taken back down into the asthenosphere. The evidence for their existence largely comes from seismology. The Burma Plate is an example.

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS

Under the Tsunami Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai 1829-1833

Image: Wikipedia



December 26, 2004 (Cycle A)
The Boxing Day Tsunami was the worst ever recorded in terms of lives lost. To avoid another tragedy like this, it is important for us to understand how tsunamis occur and how the effects impact us. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) presents information on aspects of this type of disaster.


Tsunami 101 from National Geographic (Cycle A)
In what ways do tsunamis form? What are the dangers or hazards linked to these natural events? See also: Natural Disasters


Tsunami and Earthquake Links (Cycle A)
Useful links on the topic from Eric Geist, USGS.


Tsunami! (Cycle A)
Tsunami! is hosted and maintained at the University of Washington by the Department of Earth and Space Sciences. The mission of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences is to make a better understanding of Earth, the solar system, and their histories. This site offers useful visualizations and general information about Tsunamis.


Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) (Cycle B)
The National Geophysical Data Center archives and assimilates tsunami, earthquake and volcano data to support research, planning. response and mitigation. Long-term data, including photographs, can be used to establish the history of natural hazard occurrences and help mitigate against future events.

Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) has information for the early detection, measurement, and real-time reporting of tsunamis in the open ocean. Included are links to interactive maps, high resolution DART data, recent events, and complete data files.


Local Tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest (Cycle B)
On the Pacific Northwest an oceanic tectonic plate (Juan de Fuca) is being pulled and driven (subducted) beneath the North American continental plate. Earthquakes generated along that fault may produce local tsunamis. Local tsunamis are those generated by earthquakes near the coast. This site provides links to external Web pages describing the physics behind a tsunami.


National Geophysical Data Center (Cycle B)
NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) provides scientific stewardship, products, and services for geophysical data from the Sun to the Earth and Earth's sea floor and solid earth environment, including Earth observations from space.

This database, for example, provides information on tsunami source events and locations where effects from tsunamis were observed. This will allow users to Search Tsunami Events, Search Tsunami Runups, Recent or Significant Tsunami Events, World Data Center, and Related External Links to U.S. government and non-U.S. government sites.


NOAA Center for Tsunami Research (Cycle B)
This is NOAA's research and development site for improved measurement, improved models, and improved methods of tsunami prediction. This site is the winner of the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 2004 and 2005.


NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (Data Sets) (Cycle B)
This operational server maintains a current database of meteorological and hydrological data, historical data, and written information generated by the NWS or received from other official sources. In addition, this server accesses in real time a selection of current official weather observations, forecasts, and warnings from U.S. government sources for use by the national and international community. In an effort to enhance the science, experimental products may be accessible on this server and care must be taken when using such products as they are intended for research use.


Science Daily: 1700 Japan Tsunami Linked to Massive North American Quake (Cycle B)
Evidence indicates a massive North American earthquake produced a giant tsunami that hit Japanese islands. See also: American Quake and Japanese Tsunami.


International Tsunami Information Centre (Cycle C)
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission [IOC] maintains the International Tsunami Information Centre (ITIC). Established in 1965 and staffed by the U.S.A., Chile, and Japan, the ITIC works closely with NOAA's Richard H. Hagemeyer Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), and other international tsunami centres such as Japan's Northwest Pacific Tsunami Advisory Center (NWPTAC) and NOAA's West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (WC/ATWC).


Surviving a Tsunami: Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan (Cycle C)
This report contains true stories that illustrate how to survive-and how not to survive-a tsunami. It is meant for people who live, work, or play along coasts that tsunamis may strike. Such coasts surround most of the Pacific Ocean but also include other areas, such as the shores of the Caribbean, eastern Canada, and the Mediterranean.


Tsunami Laboratory (Cycle C)
Tsunami Laboratory, Institute of Computational Mathematics and Mathematical Geophysics (Computing Center)Siberian Division
Russian Academy of Sciences Head of the Laboratory: Dr. Viacheslav K.Gusiakov


Sample Investigations:


Google Earth Lesson on Boxing Day Tsunami (Cycle A)
This exercise was originally used in an undergraduate course at Stony Brook University - GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns. Enrollment in the course was a mixture of geoscience and non-geoscience majors. It is now located on the SERC Carleton Web Site. The data includes tsunami runup heights, advance of tsunami wave fronts, and photography. In addition, the students examine evidence regarding the Tsunami of 1700.
Difficulty: beginner


The Science of Tsunamis (Cycle A)
Tsunamis were once called tidal waves, they are not. They are, in fact, enormous waves caused by seismic activity, such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions. Prior to December, 2004, the largest recorded tsunamis in the Indian Ocean occurred on August 27th, 1883, caused by the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. In general, however, tsunamis are uncommon in this region of the world, which may have been one reason why no one could have been prepared for what would happen.

Because your proposal to work as interns with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been accepted, you have been tasked to assess damage caused by tsunamis. This includes the natural environment as well as structures created by people. These structures are susceptible to the dangers of tsunamis. Your report should include pre and post examples of damaged geographical regions and structures.
Difficulty: advanced


The Tsunami Story (Cycle A)
A tsunami has devastated a coastal region. Local civic groups want to send relief to the devasted region but the general public has many questions about tsunamis and the destruction the events cause. Prepare a report describing tsunamis, the causes of tsunamis and the typical damage caused by tsunamis suitable for publication in the science section of a local newspaper or presented during the science news slot of local news/community television station or radio station. Provide support for your choice with evidence from current research on tsunamis. Below are questions to guide your research:
• What are tsunamis?
• What events trigger tsunamis?
• In what regions of the world have the greatest risk for tsunamis? Why?
• What was the Boxing Day Tsunami and what have we learned from the disaster?
Difficulty: intermediate


Tsunami (Cycle A)
Prepare a one-page poster describing what a tsunami is and the types of damage caused by the large amounts of water and wave action. The poster should be designed for the general public and suitable for display in a visible place in the community (grocery store, public library, school).

What causes a tsunami? Tsunamis are caused by undersea disturbances, often an earthquake or an underwater landslide.

Time for Kids

Difficulty: beginner


Once and Future Tsunamis (Cycle B)
Sign up for a membership on Teachers' Domain. Long before the devastating December 2004 Indian Ocean event, tsunamis had already been implicated in the widespread death and destruction in Java and Sumatra following the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Tsunamis are also blamed for the collapse of the ancient Minoan civilization on Crete.
Difficulty: beginner


Pacific Tsunami Warning System, PTWC (Cycle B)
NOAA has deployed the final two tsunami detection buoys in the South Pacific, completing the DART network and bolstering the U.S. tsunami warning system. This network of 39 stations provides real-time data to the tsunami warning system in order to provide coastal communities in the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico with faster and more accurate tsunami warnings.

Because your proposal to work as interns with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been accepted, you should suggest other areas in the world that would be susceptible to the dangers of tsunamis. Included in this link are maps of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii, Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea. You will examine each of the maps for current tsunami warnings, watches, or advisories if any are in effect. Your report should include events that could precipitate a tsunami or if there is a history of such occurrences.
Pacific Region
Hawaii Region
Indian Ocean
Caribbean Sea
Difficulty: intermediate


Safety in a Tsunami (Cycle B)
You and your teammates will write a one-page letter to the editor of the local newspaper or prepare a one-minute advertisement to be aired on a local television, radio, or community access station describing how to prepare for a tsunami or other disaster. Below are some guiding points to consider:
• What kinds of disasters are common in your community?
• What plans will your family have in a disaster?
• What should you pack in a disaster kit?
• What early warning systems are used in your community?
• What types of disasters are common in places you visit for vacation? How should you prepare when a disaster hits your vacation spot?

Pets and Disasters – tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes affect pets as well as people. What should you do to ensure the safety and well-being of your pets?

Tsunami Warning Brochure
– what should you and your family do to be safe in a tsunami? What steps should you take to prepare to be safe when a tsunami comes ashore?
Difficulty: beginner


Once and Future Tsunami (Cycle C)
Evidence suggests wave energy generated by events such as landslides tends to dissipate quickly. Historical events in Japan, Alaska, and elsewhere demonstrate that the local effects of tsunamis caused by these sources can be devastating. In areas where tsunamis have occurred in the last several hundred years, eyewitness reports or written accounts sometimes provide scientists with the information needed to gauge the potential impact of future tsunamis in the same area. In such cases, scientists seek to learn how many waves came ashore, how high they were, which one was the biggest, and how far the tsunami moved inland.

When no human documentation exists, geologists rely on the fact that tsunamis erode, transport, and deposit sediments. For example, the presence of sand or gravel deposits normally found on a coastline in an inland location might indicate that a tsunami transported the material. Thicker deposits suggest larger waves because larger waves are capable of carrying more sediment from the sea floor. Also, the discovery of flattened plants entombed in a layer of sand suggests that powerful waves rolled quickly in and out of an area.

Your work as interns with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been exceptional. You have already suggested areas in the world susceptible to the dangers of tsunamis. You have been tasked to assess damage caused by tsunamis including the natural environment as well as structures created by people. Knowing the past is the key to knowing the future. Now, you are being asked to correlate historical accounts of tsunamis with real scientific evidence. Are Native American accounts of tsunamis fact or fiction? Provide evidence to support your claims.
Northwest Native Myths
Native Myths
Seaside, Oregon Tsunami Pilot Study
Difficulty: advanced


Savage Earth: Waves of Destruction -- Tsunamis (Cycle C)
Listed on the DLESE Site: "This resource discusses the relationship between earthquakes and tsunamis, and the connection between the shape of the ocean bottom and the height of the waves. The article is supported by an animation showing the origin and conclusion of a tsunami, a video interview with a tsunami survivor, and three photographs. There are two sidebars, called 'Catching a Tsunami in the Act' and 'Remembrance of Waves."
Difficulty: beginner


Tsunami: How are You Helping – Children's BBC (Cycle C)
You and your teammates will write a one-page letter to the editor of the local newspaper. Or you can prepare a one-minute news brief to be aired on a local television, radio, or community access station describing how people in your community can assist children in a disaster like the Boxing Day Tsunami. Below are some guiding points to consider:
• What kinds of assistance will children need in a disaster?
• How can your school and community help children have a safe place to live and play after a disaster?
• What can you and your classmates, along with adults in your community, do to help children go back to school after a disaster?
• What can your school and community do to help children get medical care if hurt?
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
        • Earth's history
        • Earth in the solar system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
        • Risks and benefits
        • Science and technology in society
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
        • Origin and evolution of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural resources
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
Comments and Questions:  |  Sitemap  |  Accessibility
Copyright © 2014. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. All Rights Reserved.