Printer Friendly

Activity: Sendai, Japan Tsunami Animation

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami was generated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake centered 130 km off the east coast of Sendai, Japan. The tsunami had widespread impact across the Pacific ocean basin.



  • Table 5.13
  • A globe or map of the Pacific ocean basin
  • Computer with internet access
  • Graphing paper or graphing program



  1. Using a globe or map of the Pacific ocean basin, locate Sendai, Japan. Choose a location on the other side of the Pacific ocean basin and envision an imaginary line between these two locations.
    1. If a tsunami can travel an average of 750 km/hr, determine how long it would take for the tsunami wave to reach your chosen location.
    2. Predict what would happen to the height of the tsunami waves as they travel from Sendai to your location.
    3. Predict how the energy of the earthquake will propagate across the Pacific ocean basin.
  2. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed an animation that shows the tsunami propagating through the Pacific.
    1. Go to website:
    2. Familiarize yourself with the animation controls.
      1. Use the hand tool to rotate the globe to view different areas of the Pacific ocean basin.
      2. Switch between the ‘Wave energy map’ and the ‘Tsunami animation.’
      3. In the ‘Tsunami animation,’ practice starting, pausing, and restarting the animation.
  3. Use the tsunami animation to understand how a tsunami impacts the Pacific ocean basin.
    1. Observe and record the wave height of the tsunami wave front along the path between Sendai and your chosen location in Table 5.13. Each tick mark is equal to 1.3 hours.
    2. Observe and record the time that the tsunami reaches your chosen location.
    3. Run the tsunami animation without pausing for at least 24 hours. Record any general observations about the tsunami wave patterns in Table 5.13.
  4. Switch to the wave energy map. Observe the pattern of wave energy across the Pacific ocean basin. Record any addition observations in Table 5.13.
  5. Using graph paper or graphing software, create a graph of wave height versus time. Label your graph appropriately.


Activity Questions: 
  1. Compare your predictions about each of the following to your observations.
    1. Wave height
    2. Time needed to reach destination
    3. Wave energy

If your predictions were close to your observations, explain what prior information helped your form your prediction. If your predications were different than what you observed, describe what additional information would have been useful in generating a more accurate prediction.


  1. Were there any changes in wave height as the tsunami propagated, or spread, across the ocean? If so, explain how the wave height changed.
  2. Did you observe any wave boundary behavior or interference patterns? If yes, explain what patterns you observed and where they occurred.
  3. Reflecting on your observations in this activity, what factors do you think affect how a tsunami propagates through an ocean basin?
  4. Even though the tsunami warning system worked well, the death toll, environmental damage, and economic cost of the 2011 Japanese tsunami were extremely high. Explain why you think this might be.
  5. The 2011 Japanese tsunami breached high breakwater walls surrounding coastal cities. What other technology or coastal engineering options might people in low-lying coastal areas want to consider to mitigate the effects of tsunami? (Hint: refer to Table 5.12 for examples of structures human can build along shorelines.)

Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.