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Tsunami Warning

  • Key Stage 3
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Data work
Topic: Laws of motion

This is part of our 'Classics Collection'. For new GCSE activities with up-to-date contexts, see upd8 Crucial.

The Asian tsunami disaster of 26 December 2004 caused widespread destruction in coastal communities and led to 200,000 deaths. But could the death toll have been reduced? Should the nations around the Indian Ocean set up a tsunami early warning system like that used the Pacific rim countries?

In this activity students first consider how long it would take to warn people on the coast of the tsunami, and then the time that would be needed for those people to move to higher ground.

Next they find out how the tsunami started, before using a map and data to calculate how long it took to travel to various countries around the Indian Ocean. Finally, students consider how many communities could be warned in time and return to the question posed on page 1: could we warn people in time?

Published: 21st January 2005
Reviews & Comments: 10

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Learning objectives

Students will practise using the relationship between distance, speed and time in a new context. They will recognise that in some contexts comparisons of speed can be made from measurements of time alone.
Students will also practise their numeracy skills.

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11 - 14
Speeding up (QCA 9K)
Ěthe relationship between distance, speed and time in different contexts.
Ěrecognise that in some contexts comparisons of speed can be made from measurements of time alone.
14 - 16
The surface of the Earth is made from tectonic plates

Running the activity

Suggested time: around 15 minutes

Suggested starter: Show page 1, either as an OHT or projected. Tell students that there is a tsunami early warning system for the Pacific Ocean - many lives might have been saved had the Indian Ocean had a similar system. Ask them the questions at the bottom of page 1: how long might it take for people on the coast to get a tsunami warning message? And how long might it take these people to move to higher ground? Aim to come to a class consensus. Of course there are no correct answers to these questions – there are so many factors to consider!

Main activity:
Show students useful background information for the activity. Then move on to page 3. Ask students to use the tsunami wave speed, the equation and the map to complete the table. Many students will need help working out distances from the scale on the map and doing the calculations – it's worth going through a couple of examples first.

Suggested plenary:
Discuss the questions at the bottom of page 3, and aim to come to a class consensus.

News links

This link has an excellent animation of the tsunami
This is a full-screen version of the tsunami animation.
The Guardian
There is a really good flash animation of how earthquakes work on this website
BBC News
The tsunami disaster explained

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Pretty good

Mar 28th, 2011

4 Star

Used this with a mixed ability year 9, it worked pretty well, except for the scale which pupils found difficult to use. They enjoyed it I combined it with a practical measuring speed of wave in water at different depths, which makes it a full lesson.

The warning time is in minutes but they calculate the actual time in hours. If I could alter this I would use the same units for both to save confusion.

Reviewer: Judith Peel


Jan 20th, 2011

5 Star

I was just wondering how I could teach variation for my AS Biology students, this activity has ticked all the boxes. Thank you very much.

Reviewer: Taveyi Mhazo

Ross Flynn

Nov 28th, 2009

5 Star

What a brilliant article, well written.

Reviewer: Ross Flynn

Tsunami Warning review

Nov 7th, 2007

4 Star

Can be adapted for most years & levels of ability. I have used it for Y9 Y11, with adaptations - as part of a lesson.

Reviewer: Joanna Dickerson


Jul 14th, 2007

4 Star

Brilliant with one reservation - remember the news footage was meant for adult comsumption. Strong stuff. I was again choked by what I saw on the clips recalling that awful Boxing day dreading 'phoning people with family in Sri Lanka.
Do warn the pupils of the upsetting nature of the clips. Check that no-one had any friends or relatives directly affected.

Reviewer: Trish RICHARDS

Tsunami Warning review

Jun 25th, 2005

5 Star

Good info - and engaging.
Links to BBC and the animations worked well.

Reviewer: Jo Standley

Tsunami Warning UPD8 activity review

Jun 18th, 2005

5 Star


I used this activity with my class high ability Year 9 class. There are a number of gifted and talented pupils in this class.

I asked pupils to rate the activity and to write down some comments about what they had learnt and about what they thought about the UPD8 activity.

Pupils rated the activity as either very good (75%) or excellent (25%).

Some of the comments from pupils:

"Fun and different…"
""We liked working in a group and discussing real life issues…"
"I liked the display sheets and I thought they were attractive…"
"The Internet animations of the tsunami were amazing and they helped me to understand how all that damage can happen thousands of miles away"

The best comment for me came from a gifted and talented girl:

"I think we are mature enough to deal with the issues of an early warning system for tsunamis. This activity has really challenged me to think about the cost of human life."

How I taught this activity

The Y9 class were starting a Physics topic entitled "Speeding Up" and were looking at applications of the equation for speed s=d/t. The UPD8 activity provided a different context to the usual context used in the lesson plan.

The activity took about 30 minutes to complete in total. I used a laptop computer with Internet access and a digital data projector to project the website simulations of the tsunami waves and the UPD8 activity slides.

I started the activity by showing some of the suggested tsunami websites. The BBC News site and the NOAA site are both excellent at showing tsunami animations. After showing the class we discussed how tsunamis are generated, how the waves travelled across the Indian Ocean so rapidly and what was the scale of damage they caused.

Next, I showed the first UPD8 slide to introduce the activity. Pupils worked in groups of three and quickly discussed 3 questions suggested by the first slide:
1) How could the authorities warn people in coastal districts?
2) How long would it take for people on the coast to get the message?
3) How long would it take these people to get to higher ground or inland to safety?

It was essential for pupils to really think about these questions; especially the third question. Each group had to estimate a time for evacuation. Going round the class getting answers was surprising with estimates ranging from 20 minutes to 6 hours!

I then gave out a copy of the Pupil Activity sheet to each group and challenged the class to think about how we could process the data to work out how long the tsunami waves would take to arrive at each of the places in the calculations table by using the scale and the speed equation. After a 5-minute discussion we all agreed on a suitable method:

1)Write down the warning time their group had first estimated.
2)Draw lines from the epicentre to the named places on the map
3)Use a ruler to measure the distance of each line in millimetres
4)Work out the scale used. Find out the distance in km of 1mm. Pupils estimated this: 1mm=88.9km
5)Calculate the distance from the epicentre to each place in km
6)Calculate the time taken for the tsunami wave to arrive by using the tsunami wave speed in the open sea
7)Finally work out whether the people at each of these places could be warned in time.

Pupils individually found this method quite daunting but by working together and discussing the method in groups, the weaker and less confident pupils were noticeably more confident! Whilst the groups processed the data I was able to support and encourage each group. I had a number of short discussions about the value we place on human life and trying to save it.

At the end of the activity each group quickly reported back their findings to the rest of the class. Most groups concluded that people in both Sri Lanka and Sumatra would not be warned in time. I then asked pupils to consider whether it would be worth installing an early warning system. All pupils felt that a tsunami early warning system, whatever the cost, would be worth installing and maintaining. That, western countries should provide the part of the funding (e.g. 50%) and that they should provide both the technology and the expertise to install it. However, not everyone would be saved but the reduction in the death toll would be significant.

Some of the gifted and talented pupils suggested that if the epicentre of a future earthquake occurred at a different point in the Indian Ocean then the tsunami wave times would be totally different. I also noticed that many groups wanted to revise their warning time to clear the coastal areas, upwards from their original time.

Reviewer: Richard Waller


Apr 27th, 2005

4 Star

I used it in the Earth Sciences topic. My Yr10 loved it!!

Reviewer: leanne osborne

Tsunami Warning review

Apr 6th, 2005

4 Star

A much more interesting way of using the Distance = Speed x Time equation rather than always asking about pupils running races. The students found it very relevant having seen all the TV coverage.

Reviewer: John Pindar

Tsunami Warning review

Jan 27th, 2005

4 Star

I have not used the activity yet but have been going over it beforehand. It looks really good and I have to say that the website link to the BBC shows 4 really good slides of info about the Tsunami.

A pleas - as a busy teacher, do you have answers to the activity? You sometimes do that where appropriate and it would be useful.

If you are able to I would really like an activity for KS4 suing the seismograph of the earthquake to do calculations from. Thanks

Reviewer: Brigitte Drabble