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The Waves and Tsunamis Project

Ralph Stephen
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
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How is a tsunami like a wave on a string? We assemble rubber bands, paper clips and washers into strings with various mass distributions to observe the effects on wave characteristics. The project is supplemented with a web site which shows animations on various types of strings. Tsunamis are used to attract the students' interest.



We used this activity in seventh grade classes which focused on "understanding waves". The activity is linked to the Massachusetts framework for middle schools.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

simple algebra, introduction to the scientific method, measurement techniques, graphs

How the activity is situated in the course:

This is an introduction to waves intended to motivate students, impress on them the importance of waves, and introduce them to wave characteristics.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:


Content/concepts goals for this activity:

The December 26, 2004 tsunami that was generated from the M9.0 Sumatra earthquake has raised public awareness worldwide of the disastrous consequences of tsunami waves. Within the context of a middle school curriculum on waves there are at least five lessons that we can learn from tsunamis.

First, all school children, and particularly school children who live near the coast, should be taught to run to high ground away from the beach if they feel an earthquake or if they observe that the water level lowers dramatically.

Second, tsunamis are an excellent example of the property of waves to transport energy without transporting mass. The water that impacted the beaches in Sri Lanka, for example, did not "come from" Sumatra; just the energy "came from" Sumatra.

Third, a ship at sea in deep water is unlikely to feel the tsunami at all. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that the amplitude of tsunamis in the deep ocean is quite small, only a few centimeters. For example the NOAA maximum amplitude map for the December 26 tsunami shows a maximum amplitude of about 50cm in the deep Indian Ocean to the west of the Andoman and Nicobar Islands. In deep water the energy of the tsunami is distributed throughout the water column which is typically 4 to 5 kilometers deep. Since the effective mass is quite large the same energy can be transported with small displacements. As the tsunami approaches shallow water the mass of available water becomes less and the amplitude becomes larger in response to conservation of energy. (For the case of waves on a string this is demonstrated in Examples 3 and 4 below for a tapered string. The wave amplitude at the heavy end of the string is less than the amplitude at the light end.) The second reason that ships at sea do not feel tsunamis is that the time it takes the sea surface to rise and fall during the passage of the tsunami is from 5 to 20minutes. Such a small change in amplitude over such a long time is unlikely to be felt by a ship.

Fourth, tsunamis provide an interesting demonstration of the relationships between period (P) and frequency(f): P=1/f, and between frequency(f), wavelength (w) and velocity (v): v = w * f . For a tsunami wave with a period of 40minutes the frequency is about 0.0004Hz (cycles per second). The wavelength of a tsunami in deep water is about 500km (see the NOAA animation). From this we can compute the tsunami velocity to be about 200m/s or 450 miles an hour - about as fast as a commercial jet liner.

Fifth, many people might think that the NOAA tsunami buoys in the Pacific respond in some way to the sea surface response of the tsunami. The buoy, however, is just the platform for communicating the real time data to a satellite. The actual tsunami is measured by a pressure detector on the seafloor. (See the NOAA Deep-ocean Assessment Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) web page.) The bottom pressure sensors detect pressure fluctuations with periods longer than about 2minutes and they measure a change in sea level to better than 1mm (compared to a typical tsunami period of 6minutes and a small tsunami amplitude of about 3cm).

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

The "rubber bands and paper clips" string provides students with a hand-on tool to study waves on strings with varying mass. They can use trial and error to study the effects of mass on wave properties. The web site provides a quantitative approach to wave characteristics that is often difficult to achieve in the classroom.

Other skills goals for this activity:

Students work in teams in the classroom, They get to practice WWW skills, and they make simple but meaningful measurements.

Description of the activity/assignment

Many hands-on classroom demonstrations of waves (ropes, rubber bands, slinky's,...), while demonstrating the wave process are difficult to study in detail. For example the waves often travel too fast for students to actually measure amplitude or wavelength, reflections from the ends set-up standing waves which can confuse students when you are trying to teach propagating waves, or the waves can attenuate quickly causing the amplitude to change along the string. On the Plymouth Wave Lab web site we show ideal waves on a string as mpeg movie files. Students can start and stop the movie as they wish while they think about what is going on. Some "snapshots" of the movies are available as handouts to the students so that they can easily measure the wave properties.

Determining whether students have met the goals

3-2-1 Evaluation

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Controlled Vocabulary Terms

Subject: Physics:Oscillations & Waves, Geoscience:Oceanography:Marine Hazards, Geoscience:Geology, Environmental Science:Natural Hazards:Coastal Hazards:Tsunami
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity
Special Interest: Hazards
Grade Level: Middle (6-8)
Ready for Use: Ready to Use
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Oceanography, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Tsunami, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Hazards, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science