Cascadia Great Earthquake and Tsunami Suite

Michael Mayhew and Michelle Hall, Science Education Solutions


The Cascadia Earthquakes and Tsunami Suite contains five case studies organized around understanding the potential for large earthquakes and tsunami and their impact in the Cascadia region of North America. They not only explore the potential for a great earthquake in Cascadia and its impact, but they also include an investigation of the 2004 Great Sumatra earthquake and tsunami and an investigation of the potential for and impact of a magnitude 7 earthquake on the Seattle fault, which runs through downtown Seattle Washington.


Type and level of course
The case studies are designed for lower division undergraduates taking geology, geophysics, earth systems, environmental science, or hazards courses.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment
The case studies require a basic knowledge of plate tectonics, earthquakes and tsunami, and sedimentary depositional processes.

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment
The case study contains full instructions for the user, as we assume neither the instructor or student has prior experience with a GIS.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
PASCO's MyWorld GIS and ESRI ArcGIS. MyWorld is a full fledged GIS geared toward educational users and works on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. Site licenses are very reasonably priced for institutions. ESRI ArcGIS is designed for professional users and is available from Many universities have site licenses, making this an good choice.

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
The equivalent of two lab periods


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment
Using the Teach with GIS method, we have created a series of in-depth case studies of natural hazards. The Teach with GIS approach allows students to learn GIS analysis techniques, while exploring an interesting scientific problem.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
Each case study provides an opportunity to integrate many basic Earth science and geography concepts within the context of understanding natural hazards and their impact on society. The cases incorporate Google Earth tools, animations, movies, and other resources to enhance learning and engagement. Designed for lower division undergraduate students with no prior experience using a GIS, they can be modified to work in a high school classroom with a skilled instructor. An instructor's guide provides key information about how to integrate the materials in a course.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
A common misconception is that you need to teach your students everything about the GIS software before you can begin using these materials. Extensive field testing has shown that our investigations provide sufficient guidance for beginning users and that students learn best by using the software tools with a minimal introduction.

The purpose of these investigations is to explore and learn about natural processes and features and how they relate to human activities. As a bonus, students will learn the basics of GIS. For this reason, all of the data have been assembled into ready-to-use projects, and complex operations have been eliminated or simplified. Although it is helpful for students to have basic computer skills, they do not need experience with GIS software to complete the activities. Directions for each task are provided in the text, so they will learn to use the tool as they explore with it. The case studies barely scratch the surface of the data that have been provided, and students are encouraged to explore the data on their own and make their own discoveries.

Description of the activity/assignment

The Cascadia Great Earthquake and Tsunami Suite has five stand alone cases within it that provide a comprehensive understanding of these hazards. These include: 1) An in depth study of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami as an analog of a future great earthquake and tsunami in Cascadia. 2) A comparative analysis of the tectonic precursors to the three greatest earthquakes ever recorded and a search for such evidence in Cascadia. 3) An examination of the stratigraphic evidence for past great earthquakes in Cascadia. 4) Determining the impact of a great earthquake on a coastal town in Oregon. 5) Assessing the impact within Seattle of the combined threats of great earthquakes, deep crustal earthquakes, and shallow crustal earthquakes.

Determining whether students have met the goals

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

URLs and References

All required materials for The Cascadia Great Earthquakes and Tsunami Suite units, including curriculum, instructor guide, and access to GIS tools and data sets, can be seen via [

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