The Boxing Day Tsunami

Glenn A. Richard, Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University

Tsunami Banner

Author Profile

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Undergraduate students map data from the National Geophysical Data Center and the United States Geological Survey on Google Earth and study visualizations in order to explore the causes and effects of the Tsunami of December 26, 2004. The data includes tsunami runup heights, advance of tsunami wave fronts, and photography. In addition, the students examine evidence regarding the Tsunami of 1700.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

  • Discover relationships between patterns in depths of seismic events and tectonic plate boundaries
  • Understand the mechanisms that occur at the various types of plate boundaries
  • Learn how tsunami waves are generated and propagated
  • Synthesize quantitative and descriptive information to develop opinions regarding what adjustments in lifestyles should societies make in order to mitigate potential seismic and tsunami hazard
  • Seek explanations for seemingly anomalous data regarding heights of tsunami runups and distance from the source event
  • Interpret physical evidence for seismic events that are represented by minimal historic documentation
  • Find the locations of evidence for these events on Google Earth
  • Discover relationships between the velocity of seismic waves and physical features that the waves encounter during their advance
  • Consider resiliency measures that should be implemented to protect communities from tsunami events and from other coastal hazards such as storms and sea level rise due to climate change

Context for Use

This exercise needs to be performed in a computer laboratory where students can work individually or in pairs. Google Earth and a web browser must be available on each workstation. The instructor should have enough prior knowledge of Google Earth to be able to troubleshoot common problems related to errors that students may make. The students should know how to use the Fly To tab in the Search pane, how to zoom in and out, and how to pan the view. They should know how to use the navigation controls and components of the toolbar. They will need to use the Ruler tool. The students must have access to accounts that enable them to visit off-campus web sites. The operating system should be configured to recognize kmz files, so that the browser offers to open them in Google Earth. Ideally, there should be an instructor station connected to a projector so that guidance can be provided to the class as a group. In addition to the primary instructor, a teaching assistant should be available to help students troubleshoot problems while the instructor is engaged at the instructor station.

The activity is best suited for a course that studies global concerns, and which gives students an understanding of interrelationships between components of the Earth system, including a perspective on the reasons why people have chosen to live in areas that happen to be seismically active, and along coastlines that may be subject to tsunami events. Prior to this activity, students should be provided with a basic understanding of plate tectonics and the causes and effects of seismic events.

This exercise was originally used in an undergraduate course at Stony Brook University - GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns. Enrollment in the course was a mixture of geoscience and non-geoscience majors.

Fundamental Information about Using Google Earth

The User Guide is designed to provide information on using Google Earth to educators and students. In addition, the following links to Google's own documentation can offer guidance for specific skills needed for this exercise: 

Google Earth User Guide: Introduction 
Google Earth User Guide: Getting to Know Google Earth 
Google Earth User Guide: Navigating in Google Earth 
Google Earth User Guide: Finding Places and Directions 
Google Earth User Guide: Using Layers 
Google Earth User Guide: Measuring Distances and Areas 
Google Earth User Guide: Viewing a Timeline

Description and Teaching Materials

The students need to be provided with the following handout which contains the instructions for this activity:

Student Handout for Boxing Day Tsunami Activity: (Word doc) (Microsoft Word 37kB Nov4 08) or (pdf) (Acrobat (PDF) 30kB Nov4 08)

Also hand out the one-page Google Earth Tip Sheet (.pdf)
Google Earth Tip Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 440kB Nov20 08)

They will need the following data files:

Boxing Day Tsunami Google Earth KMZ Data File (KMZ File 673kB Oct22 08)

NGDC Boxing Day Tsunami Wave Travel Time Overlay (KMZ File 331kB Oct22 08)

The students will need to access the following external web sites:


Carleton College Science Education Resource Center: Tsunami Visualizations

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network: January, 1700 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami

Students should be seated at computer workstations individually or in pairs. They should be asked to complete the exercise according to the instructions on the handout by using Google Earth, visiting the specified web sites, and writing their answers in the space provided underneath each question. It may be helpful to provide them with some basic instruction on using Google Earth if they do not have experience with it.

In GEO 311: Geoscience and Global Concerns, we engaged the students periodically in informal discussion during the exercise, and had them hand their activity sheets in at the end of the session for grading.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Undergraduate students typically find Google Earth intuitive and easy to use concerning navigation and viewing of mapped data. They may initially need some help learning how expand and collapse listing of data in the Places pane. Some people find saving Google Earth data confusing, however that skill is not needed for this exercise unless it is apportioned over multiple sessions. Students should be made aware of online resources that provide information on using Google Earth.

Boxing Day Tsunami Wave Travel Time Overlay
A Google Earth overlay of a Boxing Day Tsunami wave travel time map from the National Geophysical Data Center. Each line represents a half-hour of elapsed time since the source event. With time, colors proceed from red, through orange, yellow, green, light blue, and dark blue. Note that the lines are closer together in shallower, narrower straits, indicating that the waves travel more slowly there than through the open ocean. The 3D Viewer also contains data from the Boxing Day Tsunami KMZ file. Countries where deaths occurred are outlined and labeled in red.

Time needed for this exercise may vary depending upon the amount of previous experience students have had using Google Earth and the amount of time devoted to informal discussion during the exercise. Typically, 80 minutes should be sufficient for completion of the exercise if the students are familiar with Google Earth, but the exercise can be used effectively even if it is apportioned over multiple class sessions.

It is best to associate the exercise with some discussion in order to facilitate understanding of the material.

Links to resources are supplied below for additional exploration of this topic.


Assessment for this exercise can consist of grading the answers that students hand in on their instruction sheets. The degree and manner of students' participation in accompanying discussions can also reveal what they have learned from the activity. Concepts presented in the activity can also form the basis of exam questions. For some of the questions, especially the final one, students are asked for judgments and opinions, therefore grading these questions can be quite subjective. For this question, answers may reasonably be expected to vary, therefore grading should be somewhat lenient, in order to enable the students to feel comfortable being creative.

References and Resources

Tsunami Information from SERC

SERC: Tsunami Visualizations

The Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004

NGDC: Dec 26, 2004 Magnitude 9.0 Earthquake & Tsunami in the Indian Ocean
USGS: Magnitude 9.1 - OFF THE WEST COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA 2004 December 26 00:58:53 UTC
2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami - Wikipedia
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection: The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami - December 26, 2004
'The Tsunami Disaster in Asia, 2004: An Annotated Directory of Resources'
Tsunami Evaluation Coalition by ALNAP
New York Times: Asia's Deadly Waves
NOAA Center for Tsunami Research: December 26, 2004 Indonesian Sumatra Earthquake and Tsunami Web Link Compilation and Data
Google Earth Community: Lessons on Tsunami of December 26, 2004
Google Earth Community: Laem Pom
Google Earth Community: Geological Uplift after Boxing Day Tsunami
Google Earth Community: Magnitude 8.9
December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Event
Science@NASA: How the Earthquake affected Earth
2004 Tsunami Map - Indonesia Tsunami Map - GEOLOGY.COM
BBC NEWS: Navy releases tsunami images
NOAA Scientists Able to Measure Tsunami Height from Space
NOAA NGDC: Sumatra, Indonesia Earthquake and Tsunami, 26 December 2004
Map of Tsunami Devastated Areas in Sumatra, Indonesia by Peter Loud
Guardian Unlimited: Indian Ocean tsunami: interactive guides
The New York Times
Tsunmai Maps - Perry-Castañeda Map Collection - UT Library Online
Boxing Day 2004 tsunami: Banda Aceh - then and now | World news | The Guardian
Banda Aceh, Indonesia | Build Change
Ten Years Ago: December 26, 2004: Indian Ocean Tsunami. Why did the Information Not Get Out? Was There a Hidden Agenda? | Global Research
Assessment of Health-Related Needs After Tsunami and Earthquake --- Three Districts, Aceh Province, Indonesia, July--August 2005
Indonesia: A Reconstruction Chapter Ends Eight Years after the Tsunami
The 2004 Sumatra Earthquake and Indian Ocean Tsunami - YouTube
Recovering a Future
ZORIAH - A PHOTOJOURNALIST AND WAR PHOTOGRAPHER'S BLOG: Asian Tsunami Anniversary - Thailand Tsunami Then and Now Comparison Series
Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster in Asia, 2004
Surviving the Tsunami: Stories of Hope
:: ASC :: 26 December 2004, M9.1 "Boxing Day" Earthquake & Tsunami/Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake/Indian Ocean Tsunami
Tsunami Evaluation Coalition - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Aceh Tsunami Museum - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
'Banda Aceh, Sumatra | gemecd'
Banda Aceh - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Boxing Day tsunami then and now, in pictures - Telegraph
A Decade After Tsunami, Asia's Shattered Coasts Are On The Mend : The Two-Way : NPR
Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake - IRIS Special Report
From The Ruins Of A Tsunami, A Rebuilt Aceh Rises Anew : Parallels : NPR
Antara News : After missing for seven years, tsunami victim finds way home
Swept Away By 2004 Tsunami, Indonesian Girl Reportedly Finds Way Home : The Two-Way : NPR
Wave of Destruction | Book Review | Entertainment Weekly
The Great Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake and Tsunami of 26 December 2004 I - Union [U]

The Cascadia Tsunami of 1700

Geological Society of America Penrose Conference on "Great Cascadia Earthquake Tricentennial" (link broken) - The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network: Historic Seismicity Catalog and Macroseismic Accounts for Cascadia, 1793-1929
The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network: The January, 1700 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami
The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network: Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories
Science News: Japanese Shipwreck Adds To Evidence Of Great Cascadia Earthquake In 1700
AGU: Fault slip and seismic moment of the 1700 Cascadia earthquake inferred from Japanese tsunami descriptions
Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup: Tsunami Hazards in Coastal areas of Cascadia
Rice University: Cascadia (Pacific Northwest) Seismicity
Seattle Wiki: Cascadia Subduction Zone
Wikipedia: 1700 Cascadia earthquake

Fundamental Information about Using Google Earth

The Google Earth Student User Guide
Google Earth Tip Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 440kB Nov20 08)
Google Earth User Guide: Introduction
Google Earth User Guide: Getting to Know Google Earth
Google Earth User Guide: Navigating in Google Earth
Google Earth User Guide: Finding Places and Directions
Google Earth User Guide: Using Layers 
Google Earth User Guide: Measuring Distances and Areas 
Google Earth User Guide: Viewing a Timeline 

Tsunami Links

Tsunami and Earthquake Research at the USGS
UNESCO/IOC Global Tsunami Website

Pacific Tsunami Museum
Tsunami Inundation Mapping for Alaska Communities

Tsunami Wave Simulation Java Applet

NGDC Travel Time Maps
NGDC Boxing Day Tsunami Travel Time Map: Georeference this map in ArcGIS, trace the wave fronts as polylines, open the polylines in GE Pro, save as paths
USGS: Surviving a Tsunami—Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan
Before and After Aerial Photos for 20 Locations
NGDC Hazards
USGS Boxing Day Tsunami Data
USGS: Jpegs showing Damage Areas
Sumatran Plate Boundary Project