Historical Earthquakes and Uplift/Subsidence of Sumatra from Coral Growth Rings - Introductory Version

Tectonics Observatory, California Institute of Technology
(Page prepared by Elizabeth Nadin)
Author Profile
  1. 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 http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

  2. This activity has gone through a workshop review process.

    This resource was reviewed as part of the May 2009 MARGINS Mini-Lesson Workshop. Each activity received verbal feedback from two participants who had reviewed the activity and activity sheet using these guidelines. Authors revised the activities and activity sheets in response to these comments during the workshop.

This page first made public: May 29, 2009


The Sumatra region is prone to earthquakes because it lies at the boundary of two of Earth's shifting tectonic plates—the Indian Ocean crust is creeping steadily northeast and subducting beneath Sumatra. The steady horizontal movements, and pulses of faster horizontal motion that occur during earthquakes, are recorded by GPS stations on the islands. But GPS has only been around since the 1980s, so it can't tell us about land motions associated with large earthquakes that happened in Sumatra long ago. GPS also lacks precise information on vertical motions, and cannot be installed under water, so GPS measurements of coastal land movements are incomplete.
In order to figure out how often large earthquakes happen in the Sumatra region, scientists have turned to coral micro-atolls. They also use coral records to reconstruct progressive sea level changes. In this lab, students will use data from real corals collected in Sumatra to track the sea-level and earthquake record of the region over the past century.

Learning Goals

When studying earthquakes, scientists often concentrate on coseismic displacement of land along faults. In recent years, we have learned that there are also interseismic land level shifts in earthquake-prone regions. In this assignment, you will use coral microatolls to measure both coseismic and interseismic land-level changes. You will learn that corals provide precise data on
1) relative sea-level changes in a tectonically active region
2) when a historic earthquake happened

Context for Use

This lesson is appropriate for introductory classes in geology and oceanography. It should be associated with a lesson on earthquakes. Begin with an introduction of atolls, unconformities, and the terms "coseismic" and "interseismic." The graphing concepts might be difficult for some students, and this lesson may take an hour in class plus an hour of at-home work.

There is a lengthier version here:
for use in an advanced class in oceanography or in paleoseismology/seismology. It may also be done over a longer time (1-2 weeks) for an intro oceanography class.

There is an optional discussion suggestion at the end of this mini-lesson. You can take advantage of tidal gauge data from around the world to discuss global sea-level changes that may be related to climate change, and compare these to local sea-level changes that are related to tectonic activity.

Another activity suitable for the first task is to ask students to use GeoMappApp (available as a free download here
to zoom in on Sumatra. I can provide an Excel spreadsheet to import into the program to plot the locations of different islands and of the locations of corals sampled.

Yet another activity -- find modern GPS data from Sumatra and compare it to the historical vertical data.

And one more .... under the Tectonics Observatory website (http://www.tectonics.caltech.edu/) there are several popular news articles related to the coral study and other Sumatra studies that are being used to assess the likelihood of future earthquakes in the region. This one, from Science News, is good:
Students can read some of this material and summarize article(s).

Description and Teaching Materials

Please see the attached file of the assignment, plus the attached figures (you may want to print out multiple copies of the coral figures 2 and 3 so students can hand in a clean final project).
Tools needed:
1) Figures 1–4 (including a location map) are included with this lab. You will refer to and annotate the coral figures to answer the following questions.
2) Colored pencils, ruler, and calculator

Assignment handout with overview and questions (Acrobat (PDF) 884kB Apr27 11)
Figure 1 -- Location Map -- Sumatra (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB May28 09)
Figure 2 -- Coral Head Bai (Acrobat (PDF) 293kB May29 09)
Figure 3 -- Coral Unconformities (Acrobat (PDF) 518kB May29 09)
Figure 4 -- Two Corals (Acrobat (PDF) 540kB May28 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Use part I in class as an introduction, explaining how corals grow and how the growth rings record inter- and co- seismic motions.
Teachers can contact me for an answer sheet, which I am happy to provide.


I plan to give an introduction to this assignment in class, and leave them on their own to start graphing. I will walk around the room and see where they need extra help and then make clarifying remarks for the whole class. Students should be able to finish the assignment either in class or on their own after class time. I plan to weight the interpretation questions more heavily, because the graphs are sure to vary from student to student. As long as the general graph appearance is fine (trends are consistent with the "answer"), then it should be considered correct.
Also, I think the optional discussion at then end will provide a means of seeing if students grasp global vs. local records. Where else in the world could this type of earthquake measurement be done? (where do corals like this grow?)

References and Resources