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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Tsunami! Examining Earth’s Most Destructive Waves

Asia, Sri Lanka
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Environment, Health, Science, Social Studies & Geography

Students will investigate just what a tsunami is, what causes it, how fast it travels, what it looks like, and its devastating effects upon landfall.

Introduction: Because of massive news coverage in recent years, most students will be familiar with the word "tsunami" and at least vaguely aware that a tsunami is a huge wave and causes terrible destruction and loss of life. But how many students know just how a tsunami is created, how it travels, how fast it travels, what it looks like (if you can see or notice it at all!), and why it causes such enormous damage? This lesson is designed to help students research all of those questions and, in the process, learn about the geography and cultures of places affected, about plate tectonics, and about the physics of waves. The Internet is full of relevant, clear, and fascinating sites about tsunamis.

In addition, students can read the experience of a former Peace Corps Volunteer who went to Sri Lanka after it was hit by the 2004 tsunami. He served as part of the Crisis Corps-a 10-year-old program within the Peace Corps that responds on a short-term basis to crises worldwide. (The Crisis Corps was renamed "Peace Corps Response" in late 2007.)


1. Ask the students in a class discussion what a tsunami is. Leading questions you might ask cover a range of issues. One way of approaching the topic is to raise these issues, list them as the class discusses them, then have the students research the answers for a full story.

  • Is it the same as a tidal wave? (Yes.)
  • Is "tidal wave" an accurate description? (No.) Why, or why not?
  • What causes a tsunami?
  • What does a tsunami look like as it traverses the sea. (It may be a swell that is hardly noticeable, or not noticeable at all, to an observer in a ship well out to sea.)
  • What does a tsunami look like when it reaches shore? Does it look like a typical breaker, only much larger? (Usually not.)
  • How fast can a tsunami travel?
  • How far can a tsunami reach from its source?
  • How high might a tsunami be when it washes over land?
  • Where are tsunamis most common? (In the Pacific and Indian Oceans.) Why are they most common there?
  • Are tsunamis predictable? Are there reliable warning systems to alert coastal peoples about an impending tsunami?

2. After raising and discussing these issues, divide students into pairs or small teams and have them research the various issues on the Web or at the library. Following are excellent sites on the Internet for information, diagrams, and photographs related to tsunamis:

3. Personal Account. Several months after the tsunami hit the shores of the Indian Ocean in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, the Crisis Corps (part of the Peace Corps) put out a call for Volunteers to assist Sri Lankans in putting their lives back together. Former Peace Corps Volunteer Darren Defendeifer was one of those who responded and lent assistance to the fishermen and others who had lost everything short of their lives. Students can read his moving account in "Crisis Corps Sri Lanka" (linked to above).

4. Slide Show. Former Peace Corps Volunteer Amelia Sparks also served in the Crisis Corps in Sri Lanka, bringing assistance to those who were hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. See her narrated slide show, "Asian Tsunami" (linked to above).

Frameworks & Standards


National Science Education Standards

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

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