Visualization > Teaching Activities > The 2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami

The 2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami

David Robison and Steve Kluge
Wilson High School, Wilson, NY and Fox Lane High School, Bedford, NY repectively.
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: May 12, 2006


In this multi-part activity, students study seismograms from different seismic stations recording the Sumatra earthquake of December 26th, 2004 and then determine the epicenter of the quake and track the tsunami it generated in order to quantify how much time was available for exacuation if word had been successfully communicated.

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This activity is broadly applicable to grades 9-13 earth system, oceanography, and geology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Adding and subtracting time, simple internet searches.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is appropriate for introductory-level students with little previous experience.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  1. Students will be able to determine the epicenter location and origin time of the earthquake using P and S wave travel times drawn from actual seismograph output.
  2. Students will be able to describe the propagation of the tsnuami waves as a function of time and determine the amount of warning different communities could have had before being affected by the waves.
  3. Students will explore cross sectional diagrams and surface features to draw the plate boundary that the quake occurred on.
  4. Students will explore ways in which various locations might have been spared some of the enormous loss of life through analysis of their data, studying videos, images, and news reports, and learning about existing warning systems in the Pacific Basin.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

In this multi-part activity, students study seismograms from 3 different seismic stations recording the magnitude 9.0 Sumatra earthquake of December 26th, 2004. By comparing the arrival times of the P and S waves on each seismogram, students determine the distance from the epicenter to each station. Using that data, they can accurately map the location of the epicenter and the precise time of the earthquake. After locating the epicenter, students calculate the position of the tsunami generated by the quake at one hour intervals. From those determinations, predictions are made about how much time people had before the tsunami crashed onto their shores. Finally, students investigate some of the ways people can lessen the impact of the next great tsunami.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are graded on the work that they complete on the activity sheet as well as on parallel activities.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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