The Day the Planet Shook
The tsunami on December 26, 2004 changed the lives of millions of people in Asia.
In many Asian countries - especially those located along the shores of the Indian Ocean - December 26, 2004 is remembered as a day when giant waves swept hundreds of villages and killed thousands of people in a matter of few minutes. Known as the Boxing Day or Indian Ocean tsunami, the natural disaster is said to be one of the biggest such disasters to hit the world and was certainly the biggest in the region in the last 40 years.
The day began like any other Sunday. Hundreds of people living along the coastline in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, etc., were getting ready to go about their weekly holiday. Being Christmas season, tourist resorts in Thailand were full to capacity, with people from around the world visiting the country famous for its beautiful beach resorts.
It all started with an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean when the Indio-Australian Plate subducted below the Eurasian Plate. The epicenter was off the west coast of Indonesian city, Sumatra. With a magnitude of 9.0 (some seismologists believe that its intensity varied between 9.0 and 9.3), the earthquake shook the ground violently, “unleashing a series of killer waves that sped across the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jet airliner,” according to National Geographic. The earthquake caused the seafloor
to lift, displacing the seawater above. The U.S. Geological Survey stated in its report that the earthquake released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.
Within a few minutes, the shock waves that travelled at a speed of up to 800km per hour had destroyed most of the Aceh province, killing 90,000 people. Thousands were killed in the Andaman Nicobar Islands within a few minutes as the tsunami continued to spread across the ocean. The tsunami reached the west coast of Thailand at 9:30am local time. The beach resorts, which were brimming with tourists, presented a horrible picture of devastation in a matter of few minutes. Within three hours of the earthquake, the waves had reached the shores of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, destroying swathes of lands and killing thousands. The impact of the waves was so strong that they travelled across the ocean, reaching far off lands like Kenya and Somalia.
Research studies conducted to ascertain the magnitude and impact of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami waves concluded that the earthquake created “the longest fault rupture and the longest duration of faulting ever observed." This can be better understood by comparing earthquakes of varying magnitudes. A normal or moderate earthquake lasts for a few seconds while a small earthquake lasts less than a second. In contrast, the duration of the Sumatra earthquake was between 500 and 600 seconds.
The tremor was so strong that it shook the entire planet as much as 1cm. The ground in Sri Lanka, which was a thousand miles from the epicenter, moved up and down by more than 9 centimeters. "This earthquake was large enough to basically vibrate the whole planet as much as half an inch, or a centimeter. Everywhere we had instruments, we could see motions," said Charles Ammon, associate professor of geosciences at Penn State University.
The quake also created a nearly 800 miles long gash in the seabed - the biggest gash ever observed. The energy released after the tremor was equal to a 100 gigaton bomb. As a great volume of water was displaced above the disturbed seafloor, a tsunami was created and within hours the waves emanating from the earthquake zone struck the coastline of 11 Indian Ocean countries. The tsunami traveled nearly 3,000 miles to reach the shores of Africa, and despite the long distance, the waves were strong enough to kill people and destroy property.
By the end of the day – December 26 – 150,000 people were dead or missing. The death toll continued to rise as more and more dead bodies