Sunday, April 10, 2011


The recent earthquake in Japan has vividly illustrated just how powerful natural disasters can be. Most of the horrific, widespread damage was caused not by the earthquake itself, but by the resulting tsunami. After the earthquake, residents living on the northeastern coast of Japan had only minutes to seek high ground before the waves came crashing in. Many never made it.

Tsunamis are large ocean waves of displaced water generally caused by earthquakes or volcanoes. In order to generate a tsunami, an earthquake must occur near the ocean or beneath the ocean floor. While tsunamis can occur in any ocean, the Pacific is a particularly fertile area for tsunamis because of the geologic volatility of the Ring of Fire zone, which rims the Pacific. The number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in this region are caused by the convergence of three tectonic plates, which continuously move and shift against one another. Once a tsunami is triggered, the waves can reach staggering heights – some tsunami wave heights have been recorded in excess of 100 feet. Most deep ocean tsunamis, however, rarely exceed 3 feet in height, but are characterized instead by their length. In such cases, a tsunami can measure hundreds of miles or more from wave crest to wave crest, and can neither be seen from the air nor be felt by ships, despite moving at speeds exceeding 500 miles per hour.

In science classes, the study of tsunamis has applications in geology, earth science, and physics. While students most often learn about tsunamis in science class, the study of this phenomenon can be applied to other subject areas as well. In schools where character education is part of the curriculum, learning about how tsunamis have affected communities in Japan and other areas can generate service learning projects and overall discussion of how people can help those touched by tragedy. In social studies, students can learn about the geographic regions affected by tsunamis, and how the local cultures have adapted to live with the threat of big waves. Students in Language Arts and English classes can write poems or descriptive essays about tsunamis, attempting to capture the power and violence of such force in words. In art classes, students can create artwork similar to tsunami-inspired pieces by artists Katsushika Hokusai and Sandra Hansen. Math classes, too, can use information about tsunamis to calculate wave height, speed, and the local times that various locations could be affected by walls of water.

Below are three resources on tsunamis for various grade ranges. Throughout the week, I’ll be featuring many additional lessons and activities on tsunamis in a variety of subject areas on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Please be sure to give them a look.

Subjects: Earth science, Physical science
Grade: K-2
Young children should understand that earthquakes can cause tsunamis, and if they live near the water, they should be prepared to go inland and uphill to high ground. In this lesson, younger students are introduced to tsunamis, and participate in hands-on activities to demonstrate the characteristics of waves. This lesson was produced by the American Red Cross, the nation’s premier emergency response organization. In addition to providing relief and community services, the Red Cross also offers educational materials on disaster preparedness and response.

Monster Waves
Subjects: Geography, Earth science, Math
Grade: 6-8
In this activity, students will build a tabletop fishing village and use it to visualize the relative height and affects of gigantic waves called tsunamis. This lesson is offered by the Houghton Mifflin Education Place, where teachers and families can find K-12 education resources including lesson plans and activities.

Tsunami: Waves of Destruction
Subjects: Math, Physical science, Geography, Earth science
Grade: 9-12
In this lesson, students use tsunami time travel maps to predict how long it will take a tsunami to reach the shore. This lesson was produced by The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), which conducts interdisciplinary research and provides advisory service to policy makers, industry, and the public. VIMS offers educational resources through The Bridge, a companion web site.

~Joann's Picks - 4/9/2011~

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