Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Coincidental to the earthquake in Chile and tsunami in Hawaii, my class is studying waves. On Wednesday we even studied the refraction of water waves and discussed tidal waves. I am glad we discussed the formation of tidal waves before this occurred so my students have a scientifically literate knowledge of what is happening.

We watched this video of an annual tidal wave and discussed that large waves are created when a large amount of energy in the deep-sea is forced into a more shallow area, causing a higher amplitude and faster wave velocity.

The important difference between a tidal wave and a tsunami is the initiation of the energy of the wave. Tidal waves are generated the same way as tides – by the changing distance between the earth and the moon. Tsunamis are caused mainly by earthquakes.

Most people think of a tsunami as a The Day After Tomorrow-sized wave that will take out all of lower Manhattan.

I guess the possibility of that happening one day is not out of the question, but tsunamis are not classified by being at least 30 meters tall. In the case of this tsunami, the amplitude of the waves have not increased more than 1 meter every 20 minutes. This might be the greatest change in amplitude that is observed.

The biggest concern with this storm is that the major changes in tides could cause an extremely caustic environment for the flora and fauna within the ocean.

The reason I’m writing tonight is not to teach you about tsunamis, but to stress the importance of using every opportunity to provide our students with an education rich in scientifically literate experiences. Watching the news today, I have heard too many people panic that a tsunami means ginormous wave that will inevitably destroy everything. I shutter at the idea that these people went to school for at least twelve years and never had a science lesson that corrected the “2012” inspired misconceptions about tsunamis.

This is why I teach science – to give students an opportunity to learn about the world around them.

NOTE: It may seem that your content area is not suitable for teaching about tsunamis (especially if you’re not a geology or earth science teacher!), but if I could work it into a physics lesson, you can work it into any science course! A biology class could discuss  the effect of the tsunami on the ecosystem of the Hawaiian Pacific Ocean, as could an environmental course.  A chemistry class could discuss how the changing chemical composition of the ocean will affect the organisms. Any way you do it, you’re giving your students a priceless exposure to scientific current events!


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