Monday, December 26, 2005

Tsunami: One Year Later, Part I

What We Know About The Event Itself

    Worldwide patterns of wave propagation triggered by the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. The massive tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean literally rippled around the world. NOAA scientist Vasily Titov, using seismic data, rendered an animation showing how the tsunami waves propagated around the Earth. Some of the waves reached the United States and many other nations outside the Indian Ocean. This cartoon depicts a period of 44 hours and 27 minutes of tsunami propagation. The tsunami reached the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States about the same time, some 28 hours after the earthquake struck on Dec. 26, 2004, at 00.59 UTC or 7:59 p.m. EST. Titov's model also was used to interpret the data gathered by four satellites for determining the tsunami's wave height. [Image credit: NOAA].

One year ago today, the world was stunned to learn that a giant tidal wave, or tsunami, had smashed into the coastlines of twelve countries in southeast Asia, causing unimaginable devastation and killing what turned out to be hundreds of thousands of people and leaving millions homeless. This tsunami was triggered by the largest earthquake to occur on the planet in forty years; the third largest earthquake since these events were formally measured. Various official agencies measured this submarine earthquake to be between 9.0 and 9.3 on the moment magnitude scale (the higher estimate would make this the second largest earthquake to have ever been measured). Authoritative analyses of the data now estimate the magnitude at 9.15.

This earthquake, known in scientific circles as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, occurred on the sea floor of the Indian Ocean at a depth of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) below average sea level. This was a very large earthquake, geographically speaking; occurring over 1200 kilometers of the fault line that lies roughly between the islands of Sumatra and Andaman. It resulted from a tectonic slip that occurred along the fault line where the India Plate dives beneath the Burma Plate. The epicenter was just north of Simeulue Island, which is located 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the western coast of northern Sumatra.

As a result of this earthquake, Simeulue Island, near the southern end of the fault line, gained at least 6 feet in elevation and the Nicobar Island group, at the northern end of the fault line, were similarly thrust upward while several of these islands were broken into two or even three pieces. The earthquake itself was felt as far away as Thailand, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and the Maldive Islands.

The Sumatra-Andaman earthquake was a megathrust earthquake that occurred over a large geographic area over a period of approximately five minutes, perhaps longer. Megathrust earthquakes are unusual, consisting of vertical movement where one tectonic plate slips beneath another, pushing it upward, in a process known as subduction. In addition to generating vertical movement, megathrust earthquakes may also be accompanied by sideways movements of the tectonic plates, as occurred in this case.

Satellite and GPS data are being used to determine the precise nature and extent of the many geological changes that occurred as a result of this earthquake. For example, it is estimated that the seabed along the fault line rose by several meters, and that some of the smaller islands located south of Sumatra moved southwest by as much as 20 meters (66 feet). Other calculations estimate that the northern tip of Sumatra itself may have moved as much as 36 meters (118 feet) to the southwest.

The earthquake's sudden vertical movement caused the seabed to rise by several meters, which displaced a tremendous amount of seawater. This displaced water rippled outward in a series of waves that traveled faster through deeper seas and slowing in shallower waters. These waves raced through the world's oceans at speeds between 500 to 1,000 kilometers/hour (310 to 620 mph), taking anywhere from fifteen minutes (Aceh) to seven hours (Somalia) to hit land. Unfortunately, until they slowed and mounded up in shallow coastal waters, these tsunamis were not easily detected: satellite data revealed that the largest of these waves, recorded in open ocean two hours after the event, was approximately 60 centimeters (2 feet) high.

Even though it was widely reported that there was only one tsunami, the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake actually triggered a succession of four large and very destructive tsunamis whose peaks arrived on land approximately 30 minutes apart. The third of these four waves was the most devastating, with a peak estimated to be as high as 30 meters (100 feet) in some locales in Aceh. In addition to these four major waves, many smaller tsunamis occurred throughout the region for the remainder of that day.

Because the fault line lies lengthwise in a north-south orientation, the strongest waves were triggered in an east-west direction and thus, the greatest damage from these tsunamis occurred along coastlines in the Indian Ocean that were also oriented east/west. As a result, Bangladesh, a low-lying country located north of the epicenter, suffered relatively few deaths and damages when compared to the much more distant Somalia, located directly west on the African continent.

These tsunamis had a global effect: they devastated portions of the shorelines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Southern India, Thailand and neighboring countries. Most of these areas are still ruined, being described by recent visitors as resembling “the aftermath of a bomb blast”. Additionally, tsunamis were recorded along coastlines around the world (see cartoon at top). For example, Struisbaai, South Africa, which is 8,500 kilometers (5,300 miles) away from the epicenter, recorded a 1.5 meter (5 foot) high wave approximately 16 hours after the earthquake. Remarkably, the tsunamis also traveled into the Pacific Ocean, hitting the shoreline at Manzanillo, Mexico, with a 2.6 meter (8.5 foot) wave. These tsunamis also caused deaths as far away as the east coast of Africa, where the most distant tsunami-caused death occurred at Port Elizabeth in South Africa -- 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) away from the epicenter!

Speaking of deaths and damages, Part II of this series will explore the human toll due to this event.


The Global Reach of the 26 December 2004 Sumatra Tsunami (2005) by Vasily Titov, Alexander B. Rabinovich, Harold O. Mofjeld, Richard E. Thomson, Frank I. González. Science, 309 (5743): 2045-2048. abstract (free) and PDF (not free, the weasels!).

2004 Indian Ocean earthquake [Wikipedia].

Tsunamis and Mangroves: The Shrimp Connection [Opinion piece that I wrote in the days after the tsunami]

Index of 11 streaming tsunami stories [National Public Radio].

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing" by The Tangled Bank,
Issue #44.

Included with "The Best Recent Blogged Writing" by The Carnival of the Vanities, Mark II.

Included with "The best weblogging about Science and India" by The Scian Melt, issue #13.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

9 Peer Reviews:

Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Hedwig, first and foremost I want to congratulate you on an excellent post. It distilled the key science findings into a readable narrative accessible to the lay person.

I’d also like to add a few other morsels for your readers to discover.

The 26 December earthquake was not the first major earthquake in this region, and it was well-known that there was the potential for another devastating earthquake. Three earthquakes greater than magnitude >8 occurred along this plate boundary within the past 250 years [1797 (~8.4), 1833 (~9), and 1861 (~8.5). Numerous smaller earthquakes occurred within recent years (e.g., Mw = 7.2 in 2002), but the relative quiescence of seismic activity in the 40 years prior to 2004 was actually an indicator of strain accumulation and stress accumulation near the earthquake hypocenter. After the Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake in December 2004, on March 28, 2005 an adjacent 300-km long section of the plate boundary ruptured in an Mw = 8.6 earthquake (Lay et al., 2005). The December and March earthquakes are the largest that have occurred in the age of worldwide, digital state-of-the-art seismometers, so scientists are able to study the events in much greater detail than previous great earthquakes.

In eerie similarity to the loss of coastal wetlands in the Gulf Coast, the coastal areas covered by mangrove forests had been reduced by 26% between 1980 and 2000 in the 5 countries most devastated by the tsunami. Mangrove and Casuarina trees reduce wave amplitude and energy, and modeling has shown that a 100-m wide belt of 30 trees per 100 m2 reduces the maximum tsunami pressure by more than 90%. In the Cuddalore district of India, areas with mangroves and Casuarina plantations suffered significantly less damage to villages than did unsheltered areas which were completely destroyed (Danielsen et al. 2005). There are community-based efforts underway to replant mangrove forests as protection against the devastation of future storms and tsunamis, but successful mangrove establishment requires planting the right species in the right places and the right time and getting buy-in from the local people to care for the seedlings. Just as importantly, success requires support from governments in limiting the development of the coastline for shrimp farms and resorts (Check, 2005).

Sources: Check, E. 2005. Natural Disasters: Roots of Recovery, Nature, 438, 910-911.

Danielsen et al., 2005, The Asian Tsunami: A Protective Role for Coastal Vegetation, Science, 310: 643.

Lay et al., 2005, The Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake of 26 December 2004, Science, 308: 1127-1133.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Ben C. said...

I wish the term 'tidal wave' could be put to bed.

As we all know this event had nothing to do with the tides. Tides have everything to do with the pull on the Earth from the Moon and the Sun.

BTW, thanks for all the effort you put into your site.

Ben Cacace (one of the new regulars (1996 - 2002) at the 'hawk bench' in Central Park.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Carl Buell (OGeorge) said...

Wonderful post indeed. ScienceWoman thanks for your input also. BTW hedwig, that opinion piece was great, but exactly what species of owl are you?

8:27 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

ScienceWoman; thanks for the additional input and the references!

Ben; yes, i agree with you about using the misnomer, "tidal wave". i used it in this story because it is a familiar term, despite the inaccuracy.

do you ever visit the central park hawk bench now? i haven't been there in a couple months, but i can't help wondering if i haven't met you there a few years back?

Carl; thanks for your kind words and welcome! it's really good to see you commenting here. to answer your question, hedwig (of Harry Potter fame) is the female snowy owl who delivers messages for Harry .. she is known as a "post owl" for that reason. the little blinking owl gif that you see at the end of each essay -- the one that is labeled "hedwig" -- is inaccurate. to my eye, it more closely resembles a barn owl than a snowy. which species do you think that gif depicts?

despite this little inaccuracy, i use it anyway because it is cute.


9:02 PM  
Blogger Dr. Charles said...

a good round up, hard to believe it's been an entire year.
merry holidays!

12:27 PM  
Blogger Ben C. said...

I was wondering the same about meeting you previously at the hawk bench. I started birding seriously when the crowds around the bench started to grow geometrically.

At this time I started following the south end pair of nesting Red-taileds on the Trump Parc building before *anyone* became interested in them as they are now. That was back in 2001.

Since then I've been at the hawk bench infrequently.

Here's a photo of me on the site. Scroll around for 'Ben':

All the best in the New Year.


P.S. - When did your interest in the 5th Ave. Red-taileds start?

1:05 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Dr. Charles; thanks! i am sure the people of Aceh also can't believe an entire year has passed, especially considering that most of their towns are still flat.

Ben; oh wow, that's a nice series of photos! i am a huge fan of black and white photography (thanks to ansel adams). i have never met you, not even seen you, but i sure do know some of those other peeps!

to answer your question, my interest in pale male and his succession of consorts began before i moved to NYC. i learned of them from the book, "redtails in love", while i was still living in seattle. after i moved to NYC in 2002, it didn't take me long to find them and start hanging out at the hawk bench.


7:46 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Monaco said...

I just wanted to say that this is a great post.



9:35 AM  
Blogger Jerry Monaco said...

P.S. I gave you a little plug at my Weblog

9:47 AM  

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