Remembering the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

On Sunday, December 26, 2004, an undersea
mega thrust earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.
The resulting tsunami killed over 230,000 people in fourteen countries when waves up
to 100 feet high devoured their shoreline. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters
in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and
Thailand. Lasting as long as 10 minutes, with a magnitude
of 9.1 on the Richter scale, it is the third largest earthquake, and the longest in duration,
ever recorded and observed on a seismograph. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as
much as a half an inch and it triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska. The mega thrust earthquake occurred when an
estimated 1000 miles of the fault’s surface slid about 50 feet along the subduction zone
where the Indian Plate slides under the overriding Burma Plate. This sudden release of the stored energy thrust
that portion of the Earth upward displacing the ocean waters above, causing the tsunami
waves. In deep ocean water, tsunami waves are generally
only 2 to 3 feet high, barely noticeable, and even though they tend to travel at a very
high speed, anywhere from 300 to 600 mph, they are relatively harmless; however, in
the shallow water near coastlines, a tsunami slows down to only tens of miles per hour,
and in doing so forms large destructive waves. The plight of the affected people and countries
prompted a worldwide humanitarian response. In all, the worldwide community donated more
than $14 billion in humanitarian aid. There were no tsunami warning systems in the
Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn the general populace living around the ocean.
Tsunami detection is not easy because while a tsunami is in deep water it has little height
and a network of sensors is needed to detect it. Since the 2004 disaster, a network of tsunami
detection beacons has been set-up in the Indian Ocean. Now, much of the focus is in the setting
up the communications infrastructure to issue timely warnings, a difficult, maybe impossible,
task in this relatively poor part of the world.

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