InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society > Section 2: Introduction to Coastal Zone Hazards - Processes of Change and their Impacts > Module 5: Coastal Catastrophes: Storms and Tsunamis
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Module 5: Coastal Catastrophes: Storms and Tsunamis

Sean Cornell, Shippensburg University
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Initial Publication Date: December 7, 2016 | Reviewed: September 23, 2014


Without a doubt, coastal storms and tsunamis are among the most devastating natural hazards to impact human societies. Even seemingly small hurricanes and nor'easters have the capacity to do significant damage in very short periods of time. Each year these catastrophes result in numerous injuries, the loss of life and property, and are detrimental to the economic vitality of coastal regions around the world. In this module we will describe geologic and climatic hazards that shape coastal landscapes—including tropical, extra-tropical storms, and tsunamis —and explain how geologic, biologic, and physical processes interact to produce diverse, dynamic coastal systems that can be severely impacted by geologic and climatic hazards.

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Learning Goals

In Module 5, Coastal Catastrophes, Storms and Tsunamis, we explore the catastrophic events that periodically impact the coastal zone. We explain how these events develop and the factors that control the extent of the damage suffered on the coast. Upon completing the module students will be able to:

  • Use geospatial skills and concepts to assess the coastal processes and hazards;
  • Link geologic time and current shoreline processes in order to explain the past and present evolution of coastline morphology;
  • Use United States Geological Survey (USGS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data sets from tsunami events to analyze and evaluate the propagation, behavior, and impact on the shoreline of tsunami waves.

Context for Use

Overall, this one-week module is intended to be used alone or as part of an online or blended general education or introductory-level course that would satisfy a science distribution requirement. The module would be appropriate for non-majors and undeclared students looking for a major. There are two formats: (1) Blended where the students meet at least once to perform the activities in teams; and (2) 100 percent online. As a general guideline, the delivery of content and assessment of learning goals/objectives have been designed to accommodate the logistics of large class sizes where students are expected to work approximately three hours per week covering lecture content with an additional six hours per week of additional reading and work on assessments. Note that some students will require more or less time to meet the goals and objectives of the module.

Description and Teaching Materials

In the "Coastal Catastrophes" module, students will complete a two-part formative assessment and a summative assessment activity. Materials for students for this module are located at the Student Materials link below. Teachers can find documentation of the activities at this location as well as rubrics for students. Rubrics for teachers are compiled under Assessment on this site. Suggestions for teaching and a list of the assessments are found below.

The formative activities (part 1) require students to use a couple of web-interface portals to study storm tracks and the impacts of historic tropical storms (i.e. either Cyclone Monica or Hurricane Andrew as per the instructor's choice). Students will complete a short-answer activity that requires them to identify where tropical storms are generated, how they move, and ultimately how they impact shorelines and communities around the world. The second part of the formative requires students to complete a multiple-choice activity focused on the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Sumatra. Students will use first-hand reports from a team of geoscientists from the USGS as they evaluated the impacts of the tsunami on the ground, and the students will evaluate satellite data that captured the propagation of the wave as it traveled across the Indian Ocean.

As for the summative assessment activity, students will compare wave propagation models to empirical observations of the March 11, 2011, Japanese tsunami. The primary question students will need to answer is whether models used to predict wave propagation actually align with data captured directly from instruments deployed around the Pacific Ocean. Students will use NOAA's Center for Tsunami Research (NCTR) website and records from the tsunami to measure and evaluate the differences between wave heights in different regions of the Pacific owing to water depth, proximity to land, distance from the epicenter of the earthquake that produced the tsunami, etc. Students will calculate wave propagation velocity and consider evacuation windows for this specific event so they can make informed recommendations for policy development.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Given the topics of this module, there are a wide variety of teaching resources available both elsewhere on SERC, as well as on the web. Based on review and student feedback, we have worked to reduce the number of required readings and have slimmed down the number of voluntary readings in order to help students manage the content of this module in a week's time.

It is good practice for the instructor to go over the lesson road map with students either in class the week before the lesson is started, or at the very least at the beginning of each lesson week. The lesson 5 road map lists a number of key readings that are required to help students as they work through the module assignments. Additional voluntary readings have also been provided to help students learn a bit more about recent coastal catastrophes. The required readings are a must for students to better prepare to answer the assessments, and it is good practice for students to read these ahead of class/lab time so they are prepared to work on assessments and ask for clarifications where needed. Students who did not prepare for class by reading these in advance will struggle to make use of time with the instructor as they work to investigate and apply ideas to engage their critical thinking skills.

In the lesson road map, you will also see an additional ungraded activity (Insolation, Differential Heating and Storm Generation. This is not required, but should be encouraged for out-of-class work. Students who have not been exposed to ideas explored in these two activities will find these useful in helping to develop their understanding of incoming solar radiation and its role in climate and the relationships between storm surge, tides, and coastal inundation.

Also listed are the two graded items for the module. These include a formative assessment (in two parts) and a summative assessment. The formative assessment requires students to explore and interpret data from NOAA's Historical Storm Tracks database (a user-friendly GIS-based map and data viewer) as well as data from the USGS on the 2005 Sumatran Tsunami. Students will benefit from a quick overview of the assessment pieces and a quick tutorial on how to use locate and use these resources. It was particularly valuable to take 5 minutes of class time to explore the details of a storm selected by the students, i.e. Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Floyd, or other storm system. Modeling some of the tools and ways to visualize and interpret data from the map viewer was helpful to students. Especially helpful is to demonstrate how to use the search tools to find specific events, or magnitudes of events, or even events for a given region. Students rarely had difficulties, but the server can occasionally run slow so the instructor might want to take notice.

The summative assessment was perhaps the most challenging for the students, although it was also engaging. The map-based wave/tide height database from NOAA's NCTR was used to identify locations in the path of the Honshu Tsunami and select wave/tide height data to evaluate the impacts and travel time of the tsunami as it traveled across the Pacific. Students had to learn how to work with the database to find the approximate times of arrival and then were able to visually identify the anomalous wave that fit the characteristics of a tsunami. Once they isolate the wave (time and measurements), they will extract the data to a chart and perform calculations. This activity is relatively simple and straightforward, but students will have to conceptually think about whether the data is measured from the sea floor (deep water buoys) or are measured from a tidal gauge. An example and adequate instructions are provided, but it is recommended that the instructor spend 10 minutes with students as they initiate this assignment. Once they have started, the students rarely have difficulty.


Formative Assessments

Summative Assessment

References and Resources

Student Readings:

Other Resources:

USGS and the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center's Sumatra-Andaman Tsunami Websites

Voluntary Reading

For more information about Typhoon Neoguri:

For more information about Hurricane Katrina:

For more information about Cyclone Monica:

For more information about Hurricane Sandy:

For information about the geology of tsunamis:

For information about the 2012 Japanese tsunami:

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »