2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

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The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits Thailand
The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits Thailand

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, known by the scientific community as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, was an undersea earthquake that occurred at 00:58:53 UTC (07:58:53 local time) on December 26, 2004. The tsunami generated by the earthquake killed approximately 275,000 people, making it one of the deadliest disasters in modern history. The disaster is also known as the Boxing Day Tsunami.

Various values were given for the magnitude of the earthquake, a Rare great earthquake, ranging from 9.0 to 9.3 (which would make it the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph), though authoritative estimates now put the magnitude at 9.15.

In May 2005, scientists reported that the earthquake itself lasted close to ten minutes when most major earthquakes last no more than a few seconds; it caused the entire planet to vibrate at least a few centimetres. (CNN) It also triggered earthquakes elsewhere, as far away as Alaska (Science).

The earthquake originated in the Indian Ocean just north of Simeulue island, off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The resulting tsunami devastated the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and other countries with waves up to 30 m (100 ft). It caused serious damage and deaths as far as the east coast of Africa, with the furthest recorded death due to the tsunami occurring at Port Elizabeth in South Africa, 8,000 km (5,000 mi) away from the epicentre *.

Approximately 170,000–275,000 thought to have died as a result of the tsunami, and the count is not yet complete. In Indonesia in particular, 500 bodies a day were still being found in February 2005 and the count was expected to continue past June (CNN, February 10, 2005, [2]). The true final toll may never be known due to bodies having been swept out to sea, but current estimates use conservative methodologies. Relief agencies warn of the possibility of more deaths to come as a result of epidemics caused by poor sanitation, but the threat of starvation seems now to have been largely averted (BBC News, January 9, 2005, [3]). The plight of the many affected people and countries prompted a widespread humanitarian response.


Quake characteristics

Epicentre of the quake, just north of Simeulue Island
Epicentre of the quake, just north of Simeulue Island

The earthquake was initially reported as 8.6 on the Richter scale. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) also estimated it at 8.5 shortly after the earthquake. On the moment magnitude scale, which is more accurate for quakes of this size, the earthquake's magnitude was first reported as 8.1 by the U.S. Geological Survey. After further analysis, this was increased to 8.5, 8.9, and 9.0 (USGS, 2004, [4]). In February 2005, some scientists revised the estimate of magnitude to 9.3. Although the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has accepted this, the USGS has so far not changed its estimate of 9.0 (McKee, 9 Feb 2005, [5]). The most definitive estimate so far has put the magnitude at 9.15 [6].

The hypocentre of the main earthquake was at 3.316°N, 95.854°E (3°19′ N 95°51.24′ E), some 160 km (100 mi) west of Sumatra, at a depth of 30 km (18.6 mi) below mean sea level (initially reported as 10 km). This is at the extreme western end of the Ring of Fire, an earthquake belt that accounts for 81 percent of the world's largest earthquakes (USGS FAQ, [7]). The earthquake itself (apart from the tsunami) was felt as far away as Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and the Maldives.

Since 1900 the only earthquakes recorded with a greater magnitude were the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake (magnitude 9.5), the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake in Prince William Sound (9.2), and the March 9, 1957 earthquake [8] in the Andreanof Islands (9.1). The only other recorded earthquake of magnitude 9.0 was in 1952 off the southeast coast of Kamchatka [9] (see Top 10 earthquakes). Each of these megathrust earthquakes also spawned tsunamis (in the Pacific Ocean), but the death toll from these was significantly lower; a few thousand for the worst one, probably because of the lower population density along the coasts near affected areas and the much greater distances to more populated coasts.

Other larger megathrust earthquakes occurred in 1868 (Peru, Nazca Plate and South American Plate); 1827 (Colombia, Nazca Plate and South American Plate); 1812 (Venezuela, Caribbean Plate and South American Plate) and 1700 (Cascadia Earthquake, western US and Canada, Juan de Fuca Plate and North American Plate). These are all believed to have been of greater than magnitude 9, but no accurate measurements were available in those days.

Tectonic plates

Animation of the tsunami caused by the earthquake (see also the full-length version) From NOAA/PMEL.
Animation of the tsunami caused by the earthquake (see also the full-length version) From NOAA/PMEL.

The earthquake was unusually large in geographical extent. An estimated 1200 km (750 mi) of faultline slipped about 15 m (50 ft) along the subduction zone where the India Plate dives under the Burma Plate. The slip did not happen instantaneously but took place in two phases over a period of several minutes. Seismographic and acoustic data indicate that the first phase involved the formation of a rupture about 400 km (250 mi) long and 100 km (60 mi) wide, located 30 km (19 mi) beneath the sea bed - the longest known rupture ever known to have been caused by an earthquake. The rupture proceeded at a speed of about 2.8 km/s (1.7 mi/s) or 10,000 km/h (6,300 mph), beginning off the coast of Aceh and proceeding north-westerly over a period of about 100 seconds. A pause of about another 100 seconds took place before the rupture continued northwards towards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. However, the northern rupture occurred more slowly than in the south, at about 2.1 km/s (4,700 mph), continuing north for another five minutes to a plate boundary where the fault changes from subduction to strike-slip (the two plates push past one another in opposite directions) thus reducing the speed of the water displacement and so reducing the size of the tsunami that hit the northern part of the Indian Ocean [10].

The India Plate is part of the great Indo-Australian Plate, which underlies the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, and is drifting northeast at an average of 6 cm/a (2 inches per year). The India Plate meets the Australasian Plate (which is considered a portion of the great Eurasian Plate) at the Sunda Trench. At this point the India Plate subducts the Burma Plate, which carries the Nicobar Islands, the Andaman Islands and northern Sumatra. The India Plate slips deeper and deeper beneath the Burma Plate until the increasing temperature and pressure drive volatiles out of the subducting plate. These volatiles rise into the mantle above and trigger melt which exits the earth's mantle through volcanoes (see Volcanic arc). The volcanic activity that results as the Indo-Australian plate subducts the Eurasian plate has created the Sunda Arc.

As well as the sideways movement between the plates, the sea bed is estimated to have risen by several metres, displacing an estimated 30 km³ (7 cu mi) of water and triggering devastating tsunami waves. The waves did not originate from a point source, as mistakenly depicted in some illustrations of their spread, but radiated outwards along the entire 1200 km (750 mi) length of the rupture. This greatly increased the geographical area over which the waves were observed, reaching as far as Mexico, Chile and the Arctic. The raising of the sea bed significantly reduced the capacity of the Indian Ocean, producing a permanent rise in the global sea level by an estimated 0.1 mm. [11]

Aftershocks and other earthquakes

Locations of initial quake and aftershocks (Credit: USGS)
Locations of initial quake and aftershocks (Credit: USGS)

Numerous aftershocks were reported off the Andaman Islands, the Nicobar Islands and the region of the original epicentre in the hours and days that followed. The largest aftershock of magnitude 8.7 was located off the Sumatran island of Nias [12]. Other aftershocks of up to magnitude 6.6 continue to shake the region on a daily basis [13] [14].

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake came just three days after a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in an uninhabited region west of New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, and north of Australia's Macquarie Island [15]. This is unusual, since earthquakes of magnitude 8 or more occur only about once per year on average [16]. Some seismologists have speculated about a connection between these two earthquakes, saying that the former one might have been a catalyst to the Indian Ocean earthquake, as the two quakes happened on opposite sides of the Indo-Australian Plate [17] (a 6.5 earthquake occurred on 19 February 2005 off Sulawesi at the other end of the Indonesian island chain). However the US Geological Survey sees no evidence of a causal relationship [18].

Coincidentally the earthquake struck almost exactly one year (to the hour) after a magnitude 6.6 earthquake killed an estimated 30,000 people in the city of Bam in Iran [19].

As well as continuing aftershocks, the energy released by the original earthquake continued to make its presence felt well after the event. A week after the earthquake, its reverberations could still be measured, providing valuable scientific data about the Earth's interior [20].

An earthquake of magnitude 8.7 was reported shortly at 16:09:37 UTC (23:09:37 local time) on March 28, 2005 approximately at the same location (see 2005 Sumatran earthquake). It is likely a very large aftershock of the original earthquake. This earthquake had strong aftershocks of its own, including magnitude 6.0 and 6.1 quakes. At 8.7, it ranks as the 7th largest earthquake since 1900.

An earthquake magnitude 6.7 struck on 10 April at 1729 local time (1029 GMT) about 120 km (75 mi) south-west of the city of Padang. See BBC News: Sumatra shaken by new earthquake - also see Wikinews

Some scientists warn that geological stresses caused by the recent quakes may even have increased the possibility that the Lake Toba supervolcano could erupt. [21] According to the Toba catastrophe theory, this could threaten human life on Earth.

Some scientists confirm that the December quake had activated Leuser Mountain, a volcano in Aceh province along the same range of peaks as Talang, while the 2005 Sumatran earthquake had sparked activity in lake Toba, an ancient crater in Sumatra. [22]

Coincidentally, Mount Talang has since erupted [23] and is now on top alert.

Power of the earthquake

The total energy released by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake has been estimated as 3.35 exajoules (3.35×1018 joules) [24]. This is equivalent to 0.8 gigatons of TNT, or about as much energy as is used in the United States in 11 days. However, the most reliable seismic energy release estimate, as of the Sept 30th 2005, is 1.1×1018 joules. This corresponds to about 0.25 gigatons of TNT. The earthquake is estimated to have resulted in an oscillation of the Earth's surface of about 20-30 cm (8 to 12 in), equivalent to the effect of the tidal forces caused by the Sun and Moon[25]. The shock waves of the earthquake were felt across the planet; as far away as Oklahoma, where vertical movements of 3 mm (0.12 in) were recorded [26]. The entire Earth's surface is estimated to have moved vertically by up to 1 cm.

The shift of mass and the massive release of energy very slightly altered the Earth's rotation. The exact amount is yet undetermined, but theoretical models suggest the earthquake shortened the length of a day by 2.68 microseconds (2.68 µs) (or about one billionth of the length of a day) [27] due to a decrease in the oblateness of the Earth. It also caused the Earth to minutely "wobble" on its axis by up to 2.5 cm (1 in) in the direction of 145°east longitude [28], [29] or perhaps by up to 5 or 6 cm (2.0 to 2.4 in) [30]. However, due to tidal effects of the Moon, the length of a day increases at an average of 15 µs per year, so any rotational change due to the earthquake will be lost quickly. Similarly, the natural Chandler wobble of the Earth can be up to 15 m (50 ft).

More spectacularly, there was 10 m (33 ft) movement laterally and 4 to 5 m (13 to 16 ft) vertically along the fault line. Early speculation was that some of the smaller islands southwest of Sumatra may have moved southwest by up to 20 m (66 ft). There were also calculations that the northern tip of Sumatra, which is on the Burma Plate (the southern regions are on the Sunda Plate), may have moved up to 36 m (118 ft) southwest. Since movement was vertical as well as lateral, some coastal areas may now be below sea level. Measurements using GPS and satellite imagery are being used to determine the extent and nature of actual geophysical change [31]. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands appear to have shifted southwest [32] by around 4 m (13 ft), according to GPS data.

In February 2005, the Royal Navy vessel HMS Scott surveyed the sea bed around the earthquake zone, which varies in depth between 1,000 m (3,300 ft) and 5,000 m (16,500 ft) west of Sumatra. The survey, conducted using a high-resolution multi-beam sonar system, revealed that the earthquake had had a huge impact on the topography of the sea bed. It had created large thrust ridges, about 1,500 m high, which have collapsed in places to produce large landslides several kilometres across. One landslide consisted of a single block of material some 100 m (300 feet) high and 2 km (1.25 mi) long. The force of the displaced water was such that individual blocks of rock, massing millions of tons apiece, were dragged as much as 10 km (7 mi) across the sea bed. An newly-formed oceanic trench several kilometres wide was also found in the earthquake zone [33].

By a beneficial and remarkable coincidence, satellites TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason 1 happened to pass over the tsunami as it was crossing the ocean [34]. These satellites carry radars that measure precisely the height of the water surface; anomalies of the order of 50 cm (20 in) were measured. Measurements from these satellites may prove invaluable for the understanding of the earthquake and tsunami [35]. Unlike data from tide gauges installed on shores, measurements obtained in the middle of the ocean can be used for computing the parameters of the source earthquake without having to compensate for complex effects close to the coast. Inversion of this height data may help adjust the parameters for the source earthquake.

Tsunami characteristics

Radar imaging of the tsunami two hours after the earthquake
Radar imaging of the tsunami two hours after the earthquake
Ripples were felt around the world. See also animation: MPG / AVI / MOV.
Ripples were felt around the world. See also animation: MPG / AVI / MOV.

The sudden vertical rise of the seabed by several metres during the earthquake displaced massive volumes of water, resulting in a tsunami that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean. A tsunami which causes damage far away from its source is sometimes called a "teletsunami", and is much more likely to be produced by vertical motion of the seabed than by horizontal motion (Earthquakes and tsunamis, Lorca et al.).

See a full-length animation of how the waves travelled (large file, about 1 MiB) to see exactly how and why some countries were more affected than others

The tsunami, like all others, behaved very differently in deep water than in shallow water. In deep ocean water, tsunami waves form only a small hump, barely noticeable and harmless, which generally travels at a very high speed of 500 to 1,000 km/h (310 to 620 mph); in shallow water near coastlines, a tsunami slows down to only tens of kilometres an hour but in doing so forms large destructive waves [36]. Scientists investigating the damage in Aceh found evidence that the wave reached a height of 24 m (80 ft) when coming ashore along large stretches of the coastline, rising to 30 m (100 ft) in some areas when travelling inland [37].

Radar satellites recorded the heights of tsunami waves in deep water: at two hours after the earthquake, the maximum height was 60 cm (2 ft). These are the first such observations ever made. However, these observations could not have been used to provide a warning, because the satellites were not intended for that purpose and the data took hours to analyze [38] [39].

According to Tad Murty, vice-president of the Tsunami Society, the total energy of the tsunami waves was about five megatons of TNT (20 petajoules). This is more than twice the total explosive energy used during all of World War II (including the two atomic bombs), but still a couple of orders of magnitude less than the energy released in the earthquake itself [40]. In many places the waves reached as far as 2 km (1.24 mi) inland [41].

Because the 1,200 km of faultline affected by the quake was in a nearly north-south orientation, the greatest strength of the tsunami waves was in an east-west direction. Bangladesh, which lies at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, had very few casualties despite being a low-lying country relatively near the epicenter. It also benefitted from the fact that the earthquake proceded more slowly in the northern rupture zone, greatly reducing the energy of the water displacements in that region. [42]

Coasts that have a land mass between them and the tsunami's location of origin are usually safe; however, tsunami waves can sometimes diffract around such land masses. Thus, the Indian state of Kerala was hit by the tsunami despite being on the western coast of India, and the western coast of Sri Lanka also suffered substantial impacts. Also distance alone is no guarantee of safety; Somalia was hit harder than Bangladesh despite being much farther away.

Because of the distances involved, the tsunami took anywhere from fifteen minutes to seven hours (for Somalia) to reach the various coastlines (see travel time maps: [43], [44]). The northern regions of the Indonesian island of Sumatra were hit very quickly, while Sri Lanka and the east coast of India were hit roughly 90 minutes to two hours later. Thailand was also struck about two hours later, despite being closer to the epicentre, because the tsunami travelled more slowly in the shallow Andaman Sea off its western coast.

The tsunami was noticed as far as Struisbaai in South Africa, some 8,500 km (5,300 mi) away, where a 1.5 m (5 ft) high ‘tide’ surged onshore about 16 hours after the quake. It took a relatively long time to reach this spot at the southernmost point of Africa, probably because of the broad continental shelf off South Africa and because the tsunami would have followed the South African coast from east to west [45].

Some of the tsunami's energy escaped into the Pacific Ocean, where it produced small but measurable tsunamis along the western coasts of North and South America, typically around 20 to 40 cm (7.9 to 15.7 in) [46]. At Manzanillo, Mexico, a 2.6 m (8.5 ft) crest-to-trough tsunami was measured. This puzzled many scientists, as the tsunamis measured in some parts of South America were larger than those measured in some parts of the Indian Ocean. It has been theorized that the tsunamis were focused and directed at long ranges by the mid-ocean ridges which run along the margins of the continental plates. [47]

Signs and warnings

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; there were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis, or equally importantly, to warn the general populace living around the ocean. Tsunami detection is not easy because while a tsunami is in deep water it has a very low height and a network of sensors is needed to detect it. Setting up the communications infrastructure to issue timely warnings is an even bigger problem , particularly in a relatively poor part of the world.

Scientists were also hampered by the incorrect initial estimates for the magnitude of the earthquake, which was originally put at 8.1. The determination that the earthquake had actually been much stronger (and the resulting tsunami much larger) was not made until after the tsunami had already struck.

Tsunamis are much more frequent in the Pacific Ocean due to earthquakes in the "Ring of Fire", and an effective tsunami warning system has long been in place there. Although the extreme western edge of the "Ring of Fire" extends into the Indian Ocean (the point where this earthquake struck), no warning system exists in that ocean. Tsunamis there are relatively rare, despite earthquakes being relatively frequent in Indonesia. The last major tsunami was caused by the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. It should be noted that not every earthquake produces large tsunamis; on March 28, 2005 a magnitude 8.7 quake hit roughly the same area of the Indian Ocean but did not result in a major tsunami.

In the aftermath of the disaster there is now an awareness of the need for a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. The UN has started working on an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System and aims to have initial steps in place by end 2005 Some have even proposed creating a unified global tsunami warning system, to include the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean.

Unfamiliarity with warning signs

Maximum recession of tsunami waters at Kata Noi Beach, Thailand, before the 3rd, and strongest, tsunami wave (sea visible in the right corner), 10:25 AM local time.
Maximum recession of tsunami waters at Kata Noi Beach, Thailand, before the 3rd, and strongest, tsunami wave (sea visible in the right corner), 10:25 AM local time.

The first warning sign of a possible tsunami is the earthquake itself. However, tsunamis can strike thousands of miles away, where the earthquake is only felt weakly or not at all. Also, in the minutes preceding a tsunami strike the sea often recedes temporarily from the coast. People in Pacific regions are more familiar with tsunamis and often recognize this phenomenon as a sign to head for higher ground. However, around the Indian Ocean, this rare sight reportedly induced people, especially children, to visit the coast to investigate and collect stranded fish on as much as 2.5 km (1.6 mi) of exposed beach, with fatal results [48].

One of the few coastal areas to evacuate ahead of the tsunami was on the Indonesian island of Simeulue, very close to the epicentre. Island folklore recounted an earthquake and tsunami in 1907 and the islanders fled to inland hills after the initial shaking —before the tsunami struck [49]. On Maikhao beach in northern Phuket, Thailand, a 10 year old British girl named Tilly Smith had studied tsunamis in geography class at school and recognised the warning signs of the receding ocean and frothing bubbles. She and her parents warned others on the beach, which was evacuated safely [50].

Retreat and rise cycle

The tsunami was not a single devastating wave, but actually a succession of several ones, occurring in retreat and rise cycles with a period of over 30 minutes between each peak. The third wave was the most powerful, and reached highest, occurring about an hour and a half after the first wave. Several smaller tsunamis continued to occur for the rest of the day.

Damage and casualties

Part of the devastation of Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra as a result of the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (Credit: DigitalGlobe)
Part of the devastation of Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra as a result of the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (Credit: DigitalGlobe)

The reported death toll from the earthquake, the tsunami and the resultant floods varies widely because of confusion and conflicting reports, but could total over 265,000 people with tens of thousands reported missing, and over a million left homeless. The U.S. Geological Survey records the toll as 283,100 killed, 14,100 missing, and 1,126,900 people displaced [51]. Early news reports after the earthquake spoke of a toll only in the "hundreds", but the numbers rose steadily over the following week.

Relief agencies report that one-third of the dead appear to be children. This is a result of the high proportion of children in the populations of many of the affected regions and because children were the least able to resist being overcome by the surging waters. Oxfam went on to report that as many as four times more women than men were killed in some regions because they were waiting on the beach for the fishermen to return and looking after their children in the houses. [52]

In addition to the large number of local residents, up to 9,000 foreign tourists (mostly Europeans) enjoying the peak holiday travel season were among the dead or missing, especially Scandinavians. The European nation hardest hit may have been Sweden, which reported more than 500 dead or missing [53].

States of emergency were declared in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives. The United Nations has declared that the current relief operation will be the costliest ever. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that reconstruction would probably take between five and ten years. Governments and NGOs fear the final death toll may double as a result of diseases, prompting a massive humanitarian response.

Measured in lives lost, this is one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history. [54] It is also the single worst tsunami in history.

For purposes of establishing timelines of local events, the time zones of affected areas are: UTC+3: (Kenya, Madagascar, Somalia, Tanzania); UTC+4: (Mauritius, Réunion, Seychelles); UTC+5: (Maldives); UTC+5:30: (India); UTC+6: (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka); UTC+6:30: (Cocos Islands, Myanmar); UTC+7: (Indonesia (western), Thailand); UTC+8: (Malaysia, Singapore). Since the quake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC, add the above offsets to find the local time of the quake. A list of times can be found at a USGS site.

Country where
deaths occurred
Deaths Injured Missing Displaced
Confirmed Estimated1
Indonesia 126,915 126,915+ ~100,000 37,063 400,000- 700,000
Sri Lanka 30,957 38,195 15,686 5,6372 ~573,000
India 10,749 16,413 5,640 380,000
Thailand 5,3953 11,000 8,457 2,932
Somalia 298 298 5,000
Myanmar (Burma) 61 290–  600 45 200 3,200 confirmed
Malaysia 68–  74 74 299
Maldives 82 108 26 12,000–  22,000
Seychelles 1–  3 3
Tanzania 10 10+
Bangladesh 2 2
South Africa 24 2
Kenya 1 2 2
Yemen 1 1
Madagascar 1,000+
Total 174,542 ~193,623 ~125,000 ~51,598 ~1.5 million

Note: All figures are approximate and subject to change. The first column links to more details on specific countries.
1 Includes those reported under 'Confirmed'. If no separate estimates are available, the number in this column is the same as reported under 'Confirmed'.
2 Does not include approximately 19,000 missing people initially declared by Tamil Tiger authorities from regions under their control [55].
3 Data includes at least 2,464 foreigners.
4 Does not include South African citizens who died outside of South Africa (eg, tourists in Thailand). For more information on those deaths, see this link

Countries affected

Countries most directly affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
Countries most directly affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
Main article: Countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

The earthquake and resulting tsunami affected many countries in Southeast Asia and beyond, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, the Maldives, Somalia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Seychelles and others. Many other countries, especially Australia and those in Europe, had large numbers of citizens travelling in the region on holiday. Countries like Sweden and Germany lost over 500 citizens in the disaster.

Casualties in historical context

The earthquake was the fourth most powerful recorded since 1900, and the confirmed death toll so far is between 165,000 and 235,000, due to the ensuing tsunami. The deadliest earthquakes since 1900 were the Tangshan, China earthquake of 1976, in which at least 255,000 were killed, the earthquake of 1927 in Xining, Qinghai, China (200,000), the Great Kantō earthquake which struck Tokyo in 1923 (143,000), and the Gansu, China earthquake of 1920 (200,000). The deadliest known earthquake in history occurred in 1556 in Shaanxi, China, with an estimated death toll of 830,000, though figures from this time period may not be reliable [56].

The 2004 tsunami is the deadliest in recorded history. Prior to 2004, the deadliest recorded tsunami was in 1782 when 40,000 people were killed by a tsunami in the South China Sea . The tsunami created by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa is thought to have resulted in 36,000 deaths. The most deadly tsunami between 1900 and 2004 occurred in 1908 in Messina, Italy, on the Mediterranean Sea where the earthquake and tsunami killed 70,000. The most deadly tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean resulted from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which, combined with the toll from the actual earthquake and resulting fires, killed over 100,000.

The 2004 earthquake and tsunami seem to be the worst natural disaster since either the 1976 Tangshan earthquake or the 1970 Bhola cyclone, or could conceivably exceed both of these. Due to uncertainty over death tolls, it might never be known for sure which of these natural disasters was the deadliest.

Human component in magnitude of damage

A village near the coast of Sumatra lies in ruin.
A village near the coast of Sumatra lies in ruin.

An article in The Wall Street Journal on December 31, 2004 commented that human destruction of coral reefs that had formerly protected some coastal areas was a significant factor in the loss of life and damage in the area. The article pointed to the Surin Island chain off Thailand's coast as an example of protection afforded by the still intact reefs of the area. Fewer people perished in the protected areas. However, one must keep in mind that there were many fewer people on these islands, which helps explain the lower death toll. Many reefs areas around the Indian Ocean have been dynamited because they are considered impediments to shipping, an important part of the South Asian economy.

Similarly, the removal of coastal mangrove trees is believed to have intensified the effect of the tsunami in some locations. These trees, which lined the coast but were removed to make way for coastal residences, might have blocked the force of the tsunami. Another factor is the removal of coastal dunes.

Humanitarian, economic and environmental impact

Indonesian refugees gather under an approaching helicopter to receive food and supplies.
Indonesian refugees gather under an approaching helicopter to receive food and supplies.
Main article: Humanitarian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

A great deal of humanitarian aid was needed due to widespread damage of the infrastructure, shortages of food and water, and economic damage. Epidemics were of special concern, due to the high population density and tropical climate of the affected areas. The main concern of humanitarian and government agencies was to provide sanitation facilities and fresh drinking water to contain the spread of diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, dysentery and typhoid.

In the days after the event, significant effort was spent in burying bodies hurriedly for fear of disease. However, the public health risks may have been exaggerated and therefore this may not have been the best way to allocate resources. See Dead bodies and health risks. The World Food Programme provided food aid to more than 1.3 million people affected by the tsunami [57].

Nations all over the world provided over USD 3 billion in aid for damaged regions, with the Australian Government pledging USD 819.9 million (including a USD 760.6 million aid package for Indonesia[58]), the German Government offering USD 660 million, the Japanese Government offering USD 500 million, the Canadian Government offering CAD 425 million, the Norwegian Government offering USD 170 million, the U.S. Government offering USD 35 million initially, and the World Bank offering USD 250 million. According to USAID, the US has pledged additional funds in long-term U.S. support to help the tsunami victims rebuild their lives. On February 9, President Bush asked Congress to increase the U.S. commitment to a total of $950 million. Officials estimate that billions of dollars will be needed. In mid-March, the Asian Development Bank reported that over USD 4 billion in aid promised by governments was behind schedule. Sri Lanka reported that it had received no foreign government aid, while foreign individuals had been generous [59].

Economic impact

The impact on coastal fishing communities and fisherfolk, some of the poorest people in the region, has been devastating with high losses of income earners as well as boats and fishing gear [60]. In Sri Lanka's coastal areas, for example, artisanal fishery is an important source of fish for local markets and industrial fishery is the major economic activity, providing direct employment to about 250 000 people. In recent years the fishery industry has emerged as a dynamic export-oriented sector, generating substantial foreign exchange earnings. Preliminary estimates indicate that 66 percent of the fishing fleet and industrial infrastructure in coastal regions have been destroyed by the wave surges, which will have adverse economic effects both at local and national levels [61].

But some economists believe that damage to the affected countries' economies will be minor because losses in the tourism and fishing industries are a relatively small percentage of the GDP. However, others caution that damage to infrastructure is an overriding factor. In some areas, drinking water supplies and farm fields may have been contaminated for years by salt water from the ocean [62].

Both the earthquake and the tsunami may have affected shipping in the Malacca Straits by changing the depth of the seabed and by disturbing navigational buoys and old shipwrecks. Compiling new navigational charts may take months or years.[63].

Countries in the region appealed to tourists to return, pointing out that most tourist infrastructure is undamaged. However, tourists were reluctant to do so for psychological reasons. Even resorts on the Pacific coast of Thailand, which were completely untouched, were hit by cancellations [64].

Environmental impact

Tsunami Inundation, Khao Lak, North of Phuket, Thailand ASTER Images and SRTM Elevation Model [1].
Tsunami Inundation, Khao Lak, North of Phuket, Thailand ASTER Images and SRTM Elevation Model [1].

Beyond the heavy toll on human lives, the Indian Ocean earthquake has caused an enormous environmental impact that will affect the region for many years to come. It has been reported that severe damage has been inflicted on ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, forests, coastal wetlands, vegetation, sand dunes and rock formations, animal and plant biodiversity and groundwater. In addition, the spread of solid and liquid waste and industrial chemicals, water pollution and the destruction of sewage collectors and treatment plants threaten the environment even further, in untold ways. The environmental impact will take a long time and significant resources to assess [65].

According to specialists [66], the main effect is being caused by poisoning of the fresh water supplies and the soil by salt water infiltration and deposit of a salt layer over arable land. It has been reported that in the Maldives, 16 to 17 coral reef atolls that were overcome by sea waves are totally without fresh water and could be rendered uninhabitable for decades. Uncountable wells that served communities were invaded by sea, sand and earth; and aquifers were invaded through porous rock. Salted-over soil becomes sterile, and it is difficult and costly to restore for agriculture. It also causes the death of plants and important soil micro-organisms. Thousands of rice, mango and banana plantations in Sri Lanka were destroyed almost entirely and will take years to recover.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working with governments of the region in order to determine the severity of the ecological impact and how to address them [67]. UNEP has decided also to earmark a USD 1,000,000 emergency fund and to establish a Task Force with this aim. In response to a request from the Maldivian Government, the Australian Government sent ecological experts to help restore marine environments and coral reefs - the lifeblood of Maldivian tourism. Much of the ecological expertise has been rendered from work with the Great Barrier Reef, in Australia's north-eastern waters.

Other effects

Many health professionals and aid workers have reported widespread psychological trauma associated with the tsunami, and many sightings of ghosts have been reported, particularly those of foreigners. Traditional beliefs in many of the affected regions state that a relative of the family must bury the body of the dead or the ghost will return. Some psychologists interpret this as evidence of psychological trauma.

Some religious groups asserted that the tsunami was God's punishment for sex tourism or other sinful activities in southeast Asia, but this attracted considerable controversy and opposition (see the scandal provoked by the conservative Moroccan newspaper Attajdid; see also this article). In any case the hardest hit area, Aceh, is considered to be a religiously conservative Islamic society and has had no tourism or Western presence at all in recent years due to armed conflict between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists.

Shortly after the tsunami took place, the Al-Osboa' newsweekly in Egypt alleged that the tsunami could have been caused by an Indian nuclear experiment in which Israeli and American nuclear experts participated. Al-Osboa' further alleged that India, in its heated nuclear race with Pakistan, has lately sophisticated nuclear know-how from the United States and Israel, both of which "showed readiness to cooperate with India in experiments to exterminate humankind," beginning with the heavily populated Muslim regions of southeast Asia, where the bulk of casualties took place.

Conspiracy theories are not uncommon after natural disasters, but this one is particularly implausible, since even the estimated 5000 megatons of destructive power in the entire world's combined nuclear arsenal is but a small fraction of the energy required to create the Boxing Day quake.

In what may be the only positive note of the tsunami, the water washed away centuries of sand from some of the ruins of a 1200 year old lost city at Mahabalipuram on the south coast of India.

See also

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Sites to help family and friends locate missing loved ones are listed on the "Links to search for missing people" section of the "Countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake" page.

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