Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science Journalism

2004 Sumatra Earthquake & Indian Ocean Tsunami



Session 1:  Science papers,  Background materials:    Guest:  Art Lerner-Lam,  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Session 2:  Popular articles

Session 3:  Guest:   E&ESJ student Mohi Kumar,  newly returned from reporting in tsunami-striken part of India.

Science Questions

  1. What causes tsunamis?

  2. What is the continental slope? What is the continental shelf? How wide and deep is the continental shelf?

  3. What techniques are used to study earth processes on the continental shelf and slope?

  4. What conditions favor slope failure on the continental slope?

  5. What are gas hydrates, and where do they occur?

  6. What do gas hydrates have to do with landslide hazard?

  7. What do gas hydrates have to do with global warming?

Questions to Ponder and Discuss

  1. • The background section of the reading book contains an article called “2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake”  from the Wikipedia.  What is the Wikipedia?  Of what use can it be to use as a journalist trying to come up to speed on a new topic? 

    •  What value-added to on-line visualizations bring relative to static pictures in newpaper?



    • We have a section in this reading book we haven’t had in other cases:  “Materials for Public Education & Preparedness.” This is a kind of science writing,  but different from most of what we have read this year.   What is different about these kinds of materials from most science writing?


    • The Guardian,  January 2, 2005,  had a compilation of press clippings on the topic of “Nature is Cruel;  People are Kind.”  Do you agree that this has been a theme of the coverage?   If so, do you think the emergence of this message will help or hurt environmentalism, sustainability etc?

    • Letter to the Science Times, 11 Jan 2005 fro Allan Lindh, former chief seismologist of USGS suggests that CNN is available all over the globe and is widely watched and trusted.  “Maybe it’s time for CNN to stop just reporting the news and start doing something about it.”  Do you think this is a good idea?

    • NY Times  11 Jan 2005, Cornelia Dean re why people live near the sea even though it is dangerous.   “In rich countries, people live on the coast because they can….In poor countries,  people live in harm’s way because they must.”   Why do people in rich countries want to live by the coast?

    •  People magazine,  17 Jan 2005 issue, spent many pages on the Indian Ocean disaster,  well written and extensively illustrated.  But there was no clue, in all that coverage,  about the cause of the disaster.   How, within the constraints of People’s format and goals,  could some clues about earth processes have been interwoven?

    • How do east coast and European newspapers try to give this a local angle?

    • Did you find any errors of fact?

    • Which article(s) did a good job of explaining how a tsunami warning system works?

    • What coverage  has there been of the potential impact on ecosystems?

    • Which article(s) did a good job of making a connection between  tsunamis/earthquakes and the sweep of history?

    • Religion and science were contrasted as alternative  ways of making sense out of the tsunami and earthquake.  Is this useful?  

    • The reading book includes coverage from the Hindu, “India’s National Newspaper,”  and “Frontline,” “India’s National Magazine.”  How does this coverage,  in a country hit by the tsunami, differ from that in the US?

    • What are the major themes that you saw repeated again and again in the coverage?

    • Can you think of any science/technology/environment  angles that were not explored in any of the articles we read?

    • Why is this particular disaster getting so much attention in the media?



Background information:

Gonzales, Frank I., 1999, Tsumani!  Scientific American,  May issue,  p. 56-65.

2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, 2004.  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,  Printed 1/6/05,

NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, 2004. ASTER Image Gallery: Phuket, Thailand, Printed 1/9/05,

McDaris, John (compiled webpage), 2004. Teaching Geoscience with Visualizations: Using images, Animations, and Models Effectively,  Printed 1/7/05,

Associated Press, 2004, Chronology: tsunamis. The Guardian, Sunday Dec. 26, 2004.

Torres, Luc, 2004, Ten biggest earthquakes: From Chile to Indonesia. The Guardian, Monday Dec. 27, 2004.

Sleep, N. and K. Fujita, 1997,  Section 9.4: The Earthquake Cycle and Earthquake Prediction, pgs. 435-440.  Principles of Geophysics, Blackwell Scientific, 586 pp. 

Thurman, H. V.,  1997, “ Waves” pgs. 232-248.  Introductory Oceanography, 8th edition, Prentice Hall,  544 pp.


Scientific Papers:

Seih, Kerry  and Steven Ward, 1999,  Crustal deformation at the Sumatran Subduction Zone revealed by Coral Rings.  Geophysical Research Letters, Vol 26: 20: 3141-3144, 1999GL005409, Oct. 15, 1999.

Ward, Steven and Simon Day, 2001, Cumbre Vieja Volcano - Potential collapse and tsunami at La Palma, Canary Islands. Geophysical Research Letters, 28(17), 3397-3400, 10.1029/2001GL013110.

Summarized by L. Kong (ITIC) from International Tsunami Symposium 2001 Proceedings,

E. N. Bernard, F.I. Gonzalez, C. Meinig, and H. B. Milburn, Early detection and real-time reporting of deep-ocean tsunamis, NTHMP Review Session, Paper R-6

M.C. Eble, S. E. Stalin and E. F. Burger, Acquisition and Quality assurance of DART data, Session 5, Paper 5-9.

Dart Buoys provide real-time reporting of tsunamis, Tsunami Newsletter, Vol XXXIV, No.2, pp4.


Public Education & Preparedness:

NOAA & Dept. of Commerce, April is Tsunami Awareness Month in Hawaii, Tsunami flier.

National Disaster Education Coalition: American red Cross, FEMA, IAEM,IBHS, NFPA, NWS, USDA/CSREES AND USGS, Tsunami.  Talking about disaster: Guide for standard messages, pp. 121-128.

Atwater, Brian, Marco Cisternas, Joanne Bourgeois, Walter Dudley, James Hendley II, and Peter Stauffer, 1999, Surviving a Tsumani – Lessons from Chile, Hawaii and Japan.  U. S. Geological Survey Circular 1187, Version 1.0, 40 pp.

Washington Military Department: Emergency Management Division, How the Smart family survived a tsunami: Elementary edition K-6.


Popular Articles

Revkin, Andrew, 2004, With no alert system, Indian Ocean nations were vulnerable.  NY Times, Dec. 27, 2004.

Raj, N. Gopal, 2004,  Tsunami returns after 60 years. The Hindu, December 27, 2004. 

Adam, David, 2004, How gigantic quakes occur.  The Guardian, December 28, 2004.

Leitsinger, Miranda, 2004, Asia contemplates warning system.  Journal News (AP), December 28, 2004.

Johnson, Carolyn, Y., 2004, Huge quake resonates across oceans, continents.  Boston Globe, December 28, 2004.

Daley, Beth, 2004, N. E. is not immune, scientists warn.  Boston Globe, December 28, 2004.

Kayla, Michele and Matthew Wald, 2004, At warning center, alert for the quake, none for a tsunami.  New York Times, December 28, 2004.

Blakeslee, Sandra, 2004,  Mercilessly unpredictable quakes defy seismologists.  New York Times, Science Times (Tuesday), December 28, 2004.

Beg, Sulaiman, 2004,  Technology could have saved lives: Lamont scientist says system in use.  Journal News, December 28, 2004.

Verrengia, Jospeh B., 2004, ‘Megathrust’ bulldozed Sumatra.  Journal News (AP), December 28, 2004.

Lane, Alexander, 2004, Not even New Jersey’s shore is tsunami-proof.  The Star Ledger (Newark), December 29, 2004.

Batty, David and David Callaghan, 2004,  Tsunami health hazards.  Guardian Unlimited, December 29, 2004.

Smith, Craig, 2004, A tragedy in Asia affects all corners of a closer world, NY Times, December 29, 2004.

Srinivasan, S. 2004, Disease lurks as survivors surrounded by filth, bodies.  The Journal news (AP), December 29, 2004.

Staff, 2004, Sophisticated system to be installed to detect deep sea movements.  The Hindu, December 30, 2004.

Murphy, Dan, 2004, Ripple effects of Indonesia’s geological events.  Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 2004.

Dawkins, Richard, 2004, Science saves.  The Guardian, December 30, 2004.

Stoddard, Ed, 2004, Tsunami adds to belief in animals’ ‘sixth sense’.  Science-Reuters, December 30, 2004.

McGuire, Bill, 2004, We need a warning system too, The Guardian, December 30, 2004.

Hoge, Warren, 2004, U. N. urges expansion of tsunami warning system to Indian Ocean.  New York Times, December 30, 2004.

Altman, Lawrence, 2004, Water is key to averting epidemics along coast, New York Times, December 30, 2004.

Associated Press, 2004, West coast of U.S. ripe for disaster, Journal News, December 30, 2004.

Moore, Matt, 2004, Worried families pin hopes to Web, The Journal News, December 30, 2004.

Adam, David, 2004, Seabed sensors could stop scares, The Guardian, December 31,  2004.

Nelson, Sue, 2004, Did animals have quake warnings, BBC News UK Edition, December 31,  2004.

Bonnell, Keith, 2004, Asia’s tsunami spurs memories of tidal wave that shook Newfoundland in 1920s, MacCleans, December 31,  2004.

Revkin, Andrew, 2004, How scientists and victims watched helplessly, New York Times, December 31,  2004, Page A-1.

Anon., 2004, Earthquake ‘redraws the map’.  BBC News, December 31,  2004.

Anon, 2005,  Asia’s devastation, The Economist.   January 1st 2005, Page 1.

Anon, 2005, Run like the wind, The Economist.   January 1st 2005.

Ramachandran, R. 2005, The tsunami phenomenon, Frontline. 22 (1) 1-14, January 2005.

Anon, 2005, Web to the rescue.  The Guardian, January 1, 2005.

McNeil, Donald, 2005, How nature changes history.  New York Times: Week in Review, January 2, 2005.

Revkin, Andrew, 2005, The future of calamity (including graphic).  New York Times: Week in Review, January 2, 2005.

Robinson, James, 2005, How the world heard the grim news, Observer, January 2, 2005.

McKie, Robin, 2005, Warnings could save thousands, Observer, January 2, 2005.

Associated Press, 2005, Asia’s deadly tsunami: How much is too much when covering tragedy? MSNBC Entertainment, January 2, 2005.

Spotts, Peter, 2005, The next frontiers in tsunami science. Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 2005.

Riddell, Mary, 2005, Nature is vicious and people are kind. The Guardian, January 3, 2005.

Nadu, Tamil, 2005, The old man and the sea. The Hindu, January 3, 2005.

Dhar, Aarti, 2005, Immense damage to ecology feared in Andamans.  The Hindu, January 3, 2005.

Nadu, Tamil, 2005, Tsunami has not affected marine life.  The Hindu, January 3, 2005.

Consolidated Reporting, 2005, Tsunami. Time, January 10, 2005, pgs. 30-37.

Shute, Nancy, 2005, Now the second wave.  U.S. News & World Report, January 10, 2005, pgs. 20-22.

Murr, Andrew, Jennifer Ordonez and Fred Guterl, 2005, Death from the deep.  Newsweek, January 10, 2005, pgs. 38-44.

Anon, 2005,  New heroes, new hope.  People, January 17, 2005, pg. 97.

Chang, Kenneth, 2005, In past tsunamis, tantalizing clues to future ones, New York Times, Science Times, January 4, 2005.

Anon, 2005, Nature’s way.  The Guardian, January 4, 2005.

Wright, 2005, Political Cartoon, The Journal News, January 5, 2005.

Bhaumik, Subir, 2005, Andaman coral ‘hit by tsunami’. BBC, January 5, 2005.

Broder, David, 2005, Scientific response to catastrophe, The Journal News, January 6, 2005. 

Okrent, Daniel, 2005, No picture tells the truth: The best do better than that.  New York Times, January 9, 2005.

Lindh, Allan, 2005, Letters to Science Times.  New York Times, January 11, 2005.

Broad, William J., 2005, Deadly and yet necessary, quakes renew the planet.  New York Times, Science Times, January 11, 2005.

Dean, Cornelia, 2005, A modern peril: Living near the jaws of the sea.  New York Times, January 11, 2005. 


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