The Indian Ocean Tsunami: 10 Years Later

On Christmas night in 2004, many people in the U.S. were relaxing with family and friends after a day of opening presents and holiday feasting.  At that same time on the other side of the world, it was already the morning on December 26 when an undersea fault ruptured – causing an enormous earthquake that led to a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

It’s estimated that the tsunami waves were 30 feet, and possibly as high as 80 feet, and traveled at 20-30 mph when the surge of water came ashore – too fast for anyone to outrun. Many people who survived the first surge were caught off guard by the water’s fast retreat back into the sea and were swept away.

Some people were able to cling to life by holding onto trees, floating debris, and scrambling into tall structures, while most were not so lucky. The hardest hit country in terms of deaths and destruction was Indonesia, followed by Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

The quake itself caused widespread damage and was felt over a large area, but it was the subsequent waves of displaced ocean water that caused the most death and destruction. The tsunami devastated thousands of miles of coastline and permanently changed the landscape in some areas.

In the 10 years since, more has been learned about the formation and prediction of tsunamis. These monsters can happen with little notice. Tsunamis are giant sea waves caused by seismic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, or landslides. This “Boxing Day Tsunami “of 2004 was set into motion by a massive quake in the Sunda megathrust fault at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

This 9.1-magnitude earthquake, ranked as the third most powerful ever recorded on a seismograph,  releasing the same amount of energy in 23,000 Hiroshima-type atom bombs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Yala Tsunami Memorial Site - Credit: Felix Krohn via Flickr

Yala Tsunami Memorial Site – Credit: Felix Krohn via Flickr

Before 2004, no system was in place to warn people along the Indian Ocean of a possible tsunami. In fact, most people had no idea what was rushing toward them from the sea until it was too late. In response, the United Nations soon after decided to build the International Early Warning Programme that has been active since June 2006.

While scientists still consider earthquakes to be unpredictable, technology and education have allowed us to keep the resulting tsunamis from potentially being the massive killers they once were.

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