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Tsunami Sumatra 2004, Andaman Indonesia

2004 Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake and Tsunami

The earthquake that generated the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was an undersea megathrust earthquake that occurred at 7:59 am local time on Sunday, 26 December 2004. It was caused by subduction with an epicentre off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake itself is known by the scientific community as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. The resulting tsunami is given various names, including the "Boxing Day tsunami".

With a magnitude of Mw 9.1-9.3, it is the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. The earthquake had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches) and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake is estimated to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

2004 Banda AcehTsunami aerial photo
Image: 2004 Banda AcehTsunami aerial photo

Aerial photo showing flattened houses in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, January 16, 2005, three weeks after a deadly tsunami devastated the island.

While Japan may have the longest recorded history of tsunamis, the sheer destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami event mark it as the most devastating of its kind in modern times.

Video: 2004 Boing Day Tsunami
2004 Sumatra - Tsunami Wave
Image: 2004 Sumatra - Tsunami Wave

The December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was caused by an earthquake that is thought to have had the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs.

Within hours of the earthquake, killer waves radiating from the epicentre slammed into the coastline of 11 Indian Ocean countries, damaging countries from east Africa to Thailand, killing over 230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 meters (98 ft) high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

2004 Woman in a tsunami-damaged village in Tamil Nadu, India.
Image: 2004 Sumatra - Woman in a tsunami-damaged village in Tamil Nadu, India .

Woman in a tsunami-damaged village in Tamil Nadu, India, waving for assistance from a hovering helicopter, Dec. 31, 2004.

Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all of the victims were taken completely by surprise because there were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn the general populace living around the ocean.

Video: 2004 Tsunami on the coast of Thailand - The Sea has retreated.
2004 Sumatra - Tourists try to escape from the killer wave
Image: 2004 Sumatra - Tourists try to rush to safety before the tsunami hit the Hat Ari Lay Beach

Why was the Sumatra tsunami so devastating? The Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake on December 26, 2004, happened in an area with high population densities along the coasts where it struck with maximal force (see red colours in the simulated image below). Yet some areas were more so affected than others.

2004 Sumatra - Wave Amplitude Chart
Image: 2004 Sumatra - Wave Amplitude Chart

The worst affected areas had two things in common: they have neither experienced hurricanes nor tides. Thus people lived dangerously close to the water and often on ships that would not be seaworthy in areas where tropical cyclones are common. But from scientific observations we know today that tides and hurricanes are able to modify the coast in ways that may reduce tsunami damage. Combined with waves, and particularly those from storms, tides can erode the shoreline out, until a shore profile results that resists tsunamis. On such coasts, a tsunami won't be able to run inland as far as it did in Aceh, the region located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, where approximately 170,000 Indonesians were killed or went missing in the disaster, and approximately 500,000 were left homeless.

That is also the reason why the March 2011 tsunami in Japan caused predictably much damage where the coast had never experienced either substantial tides or storms.

2004 Sumatra - After Tsunami
Image: The aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indon.
Video: Tsunami 2004 Indonesia

A 2004 Tsunami survivor story

It was boxing day 2004 and Mrs Rinaldiana was walking near her home in Banda Aceh, Sumatra. "Suddenly, I saw the buildings move, shaken hard," she said. People running from the shore shouted that the sea was rising.

Mrs Rinaldiana and her family sought shelter in a crowded two-storey house, but it was soon destroyed. "My daughter was hit by the collapsed house, and then she was gone, she told Professor Walter Dudley of the University of Hawaii. Mrs Rinaldiana was knocked unconscious. When she came to, the wave was carrying her and she was surrounded by debris. "I thought this was hell. I thought it was the end of the world," she said.

2004 Sumatra - Man floating
Image: 2004 Tsunami Indonesia - A young man floating in the raging water
2004 Sumatra - Satellite Image
Image: Satellite image of Banda Aceh, Indon, showing the devastation caused by the tsunami of December 2004.
Video: How the Simeulue islanders survived the 2004 Tsunami

2004 Tsunami (Banda Aceh Tsunami): full documentary

Video: 2004 Tsunami Documentary