Earthquake & Tsunami

We’re currently in Galle, a city on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Last night I got an email from our friend Anita in Dallas. She’s an educator and a science nerd of the highest caliber.

Here’s what she said, “7.9 earthquake Sumatra. I think you are a fair distance but keep watch for tsunami if you are near coast.”

I immediately went to Google News and searched for “earthquake sumatra”.

earthquake news

Yikes! Of course Anita was right, and her warning was timed with the earliest of news stories about the quake. It sure is nice to have and early warning network of smart friends. Thanks Anita. This is the kind of email that could have potentially saved our lives.

As you may know, in 2004 there was a similar but larger earthquake in the same area off the coast of Sumatra. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The shock had a moment magnitude of 9.1–9.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent). The undersea megathrust earthquake was caused when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000 people in 14 countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres (100 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.

It is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes.[8] It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches)[9] and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.[10] Its epicentre was between Simeulue and mainland Indonesia.

We’re staying a family-run guesthouse in one of the highest areas of Galle, away from the sea, so I think we would be safe from all but the very largest tsunamis. In the 2004 tsunami, the water did not reach this area, and in fact in the lower area of the fort, the walls of the Galle Fort protected it from the waves. Nonetheless, I found our host and told her about the earthquake and suggested that she call and alert any family or friends that lived on the water or in areas that might be at risk. We were on high alert.

This earthquake really hit home for us as we have spent the past month or so in Sumatra and Sri Lanka, in areas that were massively affected by the 2004 tsunami. Just day-before-yesterday we were at the Tsunami Photo Museum in the beach town of Hikkaduwa/Telwatta. It is a small museum put together by one of the survivors. It sits across the road from the ocean, in the location where her home used to be, before the tsunami washed it away.

Tsunami Photo Musuem

Tsunami Photo Musuem

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

The owner of the musuem telling us about the tsunami.

She told us harrowing tales of how the day unfolded. She said that there was no warning and that most people had no idea what was happening. There was quite suddenly a large wave that hit the town, washing over the beach and well onto land in many areas. It was a big wave, but not too devastating.

First wave

First wave

The first wave

The first wave

After the wave hit, the waters retreated to well beyond the normal shore line, exposing ground that was normally underwater. What used to be water was now land and the sea was calm in the distance. People had never seen such a thing, and many came down to the water to look, to check the damage, and to assist others. Some people fled inland, looking for higher ground. There was a train stopped on the tracks and many villagers sought refuge on the train, or put their children on the train, thinking it to be a safe place.

For the next 20 or 30 minutes, the waters of the sea were eerily calm in the distance, and then suddenly, a giant, much larger wave came roaring in. This brought massive devastation and death. More than 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. Thousands are still “missing.”

The second wave hits

The second wave hits people who had walked out to to the beach to investigate


The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 2,000 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.

The train was not a safe refuge. As many as 1,500 people were killed when the second wave hit the train.


Here are more photos of the museum:


This is what the owners home looked like after the second wave. Everything was destroyed. The museum was built on the site where the home used to be.


This is the tent the owner lived in for 6 months after the tsunami.

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Thankfully, the earthquake last night did not result in a tsunami, but it was still a powerful experience for us and a reminder as to how quickly life can change. In our recent travels, we’ve climbed a volcano where we smelled the sulfurous steam, seen hot lava flows, and felt the burning heat of the active Earth. We visited villages that sit at the base of volcanoes and that one day, will likely be destroyed in an eruption. We’ve seen first hand the devastating power of earthquakes and tsunamis. We’ve seen tragic human impact and loss as well as human strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

Have fun, but be careful out there.

POP QUIZ: How do scientists measure the strength of earthquakes?

Seismologists use equipment called seismographs to measure movements in the earth. These movements or forces are expressed in numbers using the Moment of Magnitude Scale. In the past they used the Richter Scale. For more info: