FAQ - Everything Else You Want to Know About this Earthquake & Tsunami

Magnitude 9.0 Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake FAQ

Question: Where can I find more information on tsunamis?

Answer: Please see our Tsunami Information Links.

Is the magnitude of the December 26th, 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake greater than 9.0?

Many detailed studies on the magnitude of the December 26th, 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake are being conducted. One careful study reports a magnitude as high as magnitude 9.3. Determining the magnitude of earthquakes larger than 9 is difficult, so several techniques are used and new techniques being developed. The magnitudes used by the USGS are either those that come from validated, routinely used techniques or from a consensus of the seismological community based upon such in-depth investigations.  Since determining the magnitude of the Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake is still an active area of research, there is currently no firm consensus on the "correct" magnitude of this earthquake.  The USGS magnitude is likely to change when a consensus is reached.  This will be done in consultation the groups that provide routine information to USGS earthquake catalogs.  

One problem with prematurely revising the magnitude to 9.3 is that of consistency problems with our heavily-accessed list of largest earthquakes.  This list is periodically updated, but there is the problem of comparing "apples-to-oranges".  It is quite clear from almost all geophysical measures of earthquake size that the 1964 Alaska earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.2, was larger than the 26 December Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to use the same method that led to the 9.3 magnitude estimate for the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake on the 1964 Alaska earthquake because modern seismometers and the broadband data they produce did not exist in 1964.  At this point, we do not know if the slow-slip component of the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake was unique, or a feature common to all, or most, magnitude 9+ earthquakes.

So changing the magnitude of the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake to 9.3 at this time would not only be premature, but could place it in the wrong position on the list of largest earthquakes.

Question: Can we expect many aftershocks to this earthquake?

Answer: There have been numerous aftershocks detected following the recent magnitude 9 megathrust earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center (USGS/NEIC) continues to record many newly occurred aftershocks. As of 1:00PM, MST, December 29, sixty-eight aftershocks have been cataloged. The largest occurred about three hours after the main shock and is now assigned a magnitude of 7.1. Thirteen of the aftershocks thus far cataloged have magnitudes of 6.0 or larger. There have been no reports of tsunamis being generated from the aftershocks. We know from past experience that the number of aftershocks will decrease with time. However, the number of aftershocks can be quite variable. There might be short episodes of higher activity as well as lulls in activity, but the overall trend will be for fewer aftershocks as time goes by. Seismologists are not able to predict the timing and sizes of individual aftershocks.

The number of cataloged aftershocks will be constantly changing, as new aftershocks occur and as USGS/NEIC analysts newly locate aftershocks from the first few days after the earthquake. Magnitudes assigned to individual aftershocks may change somewhat as new data come in. An up-to-date catalog of analyst-processed USGS/NEIC epicenters and magnitudes is at

Question: Is there a possibility of another tsunami in the area?

Answer: Of major concern following the 26 December 2004 magnitude 9.0 earthquake is the potential of another damaging tsunami being generated by an aftershock.  The only way to know for certain if a tsunami has been generated is to directly measure the height and propagation of the ensuing wave using ocean pressure sensors and tide gauges.  However, a system of such instruments does not exist in the Indian Ocean. Absent of a system of instruments, we must defer to historical earthquake-tsunami records to calibrate our thinking. For reasons summarized below, we conclude that the chance of a tsunami resulting from an aftershock is small, but finite. Nevertheless, we emphasize that the great tsunami of 26 December is extremely unlikely to reoccur in the near future.

Although magnitude is one factor that does affect tsunami generation, there are other important factors to consider.  The earthquake must be a shallow marine event that displaces the seafloor.  Thrust earthquakes (as opposed to strike slip) are far more likely to generate tsunamis, but small tsunamis have occurred in a few cases from large (i.e., > M8) strike-slip earthquakes. Although a number of the Sumatra-Andaman Islands aftershocks are thrust events, many are not. Similarly, the depth of these aftershocks is quite variable.  This variability (which is common in aftershock sequences) is an important consideration when evaluating the potential of any given aftershock triggering a tsunami. With these caveats, we offer the following general guidelines based on historical observations and in accordance with procedures of the NOAA Richard H. Hagemeyer Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Question: What was the background seismicity in the region before the M9.0 earthquake?

Answer: This table represents the number of earthquakes in the aftershock zone of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on 12/26/04 for the ten previous years.

The numbers of earthquakes located in 2004 does NOT reflect the main shock or aftershocks from the 9.0. The region encompasses a rectangular box which extends from 2N to 14N and from 92E to 98E. These statistics were obtained from the USGS PDE earthquake catalog search page.

YEAR Magnitude
5.5 & larger events
5.0 & larger events
4.5 & larger events
1995 2 7 35
1996 2 9 36
1997 2 11 37
1998 1 8 38
1999 3 11 34
2000 5 12 44
2001 4 9 36
2002 11 25 91
2003 6 20 64
2004 4 14 67

Question: How has the occurrence of this earthquake affected the probability of another great earthquake?

Answer: The occurrence of this earthquake will have produced a redistribution of tectonic stresses along and near the boundary between the India plate and the Burma plate.  In some areas, this redistribution of stresses will be such as to shorten the time to the next big earthquake compared to what would have been the case if the earthquake had not happened.  In other areas, the redistribution of stresses will be such as to increase the time to the next big earthquake.  Once the distribution of slip along the earthquake fault has been mapped, it will be possible to estimate the areas that were moved closer to future failure and those that were moved farther from future failure. It is not yet possible, however, to reliably estimate when the future failure will occur in a given area or how large will be the resulting earthquake.

Question: This earthquake occurred within three days of a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in the Macquarie Islands.  Is there any relation between the two earthquakes?

Answer: The occurrence of two great earthquakes within such a short space of time is indeed striking. However, even in retrospect, we do not yet see evidence for a strong causal relationship between the two earthquakes.

It seems clear that long-term stress changes associated with one earthquake may trigger other earthquakes on the same fault or on nearby faults. In fact, the aftershocks that occur around the source of a large earthquake are triggered by such stress changes. But the long-term stress changes caused by an earthquake decrease rapidly with distance away from the earthquake source. The Macquarie Ridge earthquake was very far from the site of the yet-to-occur Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake, and occurred on a different plate boundary. The hypothesis that long-term stress changes associated with the Macquarie Ridge earthquake triggered the Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake therefore does not seem compelling.

There is also strong evidence that the shaking of the ground caused by a great earthquake, such as the Macquarie Ridge earthquake, can trigger small earthquakes in sensitive tectonic environments at large distances from the great earthquake. The evidence for such triggering is most convincing when the earthquakes that are thought to be triggered occur near the time of strongest shaking from the triggering earthquake, which would be within several hours following the triggering earthquake. However, the Sumatra/Andaman-Islands earthquake occurred about two-and-a-half days after the Macquarie Ridge earthquake.

An alternative to the hypothesis that the Macquarie Ridge and Sumatra/Andaman Islands earthquakes are causally related is that the occurrence of the two, widely separated, great earthquakes within three days was a probabilistic coincidence.

Question: How come the 12/23/04 M8.1 Macquarie Island earthquake didn't produce a tsunami? What was the difference?

Answer: A tsunami is a sea wave of local or distant origin that can be generated when the sea floor abruptly deforms and vertically displaces overlying water.   Such a displacement can occur when an earthquake ruptures oceanic lithosphere.  When the opposite sides of a fault are inclined and have a vertical component of motion, we have an earthquake with dip-slip faulting.  When the opposite sides of a fault are vertical and move horizontally, we have an earthquake with strike-slip faulting.  Given two earthquakes of the same size, the one that has greater vertical fault motion is likely to displace a greater amount of overlying water.  Indeed, the Sumatra and Macquarie Ridge earthquakes occurred on different plate boundaries and had different faulting mechanisms.  The Macquarie Ridge forms part of the Pacific-Australian plate boundary and the faulting mechanism of this earthquake is predominantly strike-slip.  The Sumatra earthquake occurred on the interface of the India and Burma plates and its faulting mechanism was predominantly thrust with vertical slip.  

However, tsunamis can also arise from strike-slip earthquakes.  A strike-slip Macquarie Ridge earthquake on May 1989, which had a similar magnitude (Mw 8.1) to the December 2004 earthquake, generated a small tsunami.  A strike-slip earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska (November 1987, Mw 7.9) generated a 0.8 m tsunami while a strike-slip earthquake off the coast of northern California (Aug 1991, Mw 7.1) generated a 0.5 m tsunami.  Although the fault displacements produced by these earthquakes were predominantly horizontal they may have had a slight vertical component.  A combination of horizontal and vertical motion across a fault plane is called oblique slip.  Strike-slip earthquakes can also cause underwater landslides that can generate tsunamis. Thus, another major reason that the Sumatra earthquake generated a tsunami is its sheer size, a magnitude (Mw 9.0) that was so much larger than that of the Macquarie Ridge earthquake (Mw 8.1).

Question: What was the size of the fault that produced the earthquake?

Answer: An initial estimate of the size of the rupture that caused the earthquake
is obtained from the length of the aftershock zone,  the dimensions of historical earthquakes, and a study of the elastic waves generated by the earthquake.  The aftershocks suggest that the earthquake rupture had a maximum length of 1200 -- 1300 km parallel to the Sunda trench and a width of over 100 km perpendicular to the earthquake source.  An early estimate from the study of elastic waves show the majority of slip was concentrated in the southernmost 400 km of the rupture.

Question: What was the maximum displacement on the rupture surface between the plates ?

Answer: The maximum displacement estimated from a preliminary study of the seismic body waves is 20 meters.

Question: What was the maximum displacement of the sea bottom above the earthquake

Answer: The displacement of the ground surface will be related to, but somewhat less than, the
displacement on the earthquake fault at depth.  In places, the block of crust beneath the sea floor and overlying the causative fault is likely to have moved on the order of 10 meters to the west-southwest and to have been uplifted by several meters.

Question: What is the angle of subduction of the India plate beneath the Burma plate?

Answer: At the source of the earthquake, the interface between the India plate and the Burma plate dips about 10 degrees to the east-northeast.  The subducting plate dips more steeply at greater depths.

Question: How much energy was released by this earthquake?

Answer: Es 20X10^17 Joules, or 475,000 kilotons (475 megatons) of TNT, or the equivalent of 23,000 Nagasaki bombs.

Question: How long did the earthquake shake? (What was the duration?)

Answer: The actual rupture duration on the fault (the time it took for the earthquake to take place on the fault and rupture the entire length) was approximately 3 to 4 minutes. The exact length of time that people felt the shaking varied from place to place, depending on their distance to the fault, and other factors, such as what type of bedrock they were on, what the crustal structure was below them and between them and the fault, etc. In northern Sumatra , which lies almost above the fault, shaking may have been experienced for up to several minutes.

Question: What effect did this earthquake have on the rotation of the earth?

Answer: While this question is a little outside the earthquake role of the USGS, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who work with the USGS, have told us that the effects on the Earth's rotation from an earthquake even of this magnitude is much too small to be observed. The length of the day can be measured with an accuracy of about 20 microseconds and calculations of the source properties of the earthquake showed the change in the length of the day to be -2.676 microseconds, or in other words, less than can be effectively measured.

If you want a more complete and technical answer to this question, Richard Gross at JPL offers the following:

JPL has modeled the coseismic effect on the Earth's rotation of the December 26 earthquake in Indonesia by using the PREM model for the elastic properties of the Earth and the Harvard centroid-moment tensor solution for the source properties of the earthquake. The result is:

change in length of day: -2.676 microseconds
polar motion excitation X : -0.670 milliarcseconds
polar motion excitation Y: 0.475 milliarcseconds

Since the length of the day can be measured with an accuracy of about 20 microseconds, this model predicts that the change in the length-of-day caused by the earthquake is much too small to be observed. And, since the location of the earthquake was near the equator, this model predicts that the change in polar motion excitation is also rather small, being about 0.82 milliarcsecond in amplitude. Such a small change in polar motion excitation will also be difficult to detect.

Also see:
NASA Details Earthquake Effects on the Earth
How the Earthquake Affected the Earth - NASA

Question: Why did the magnitude of this earthquake change?

Answer: While earthquake location can be determined fairly rapidly, earthquake size is somewhat more problematic.  This is because location is mainly based upon measurements of the time that seismic waves arrive at a station.  Magnitude, on the other hand, is based upon the amplitude of those waves.  The amplitude is much more variable than the arrival times, thus causing greater uncertainty in the magnitude estimate.

For larger earthquakes, the problem is compounded by the fact that the larger the earthquake, the lower the characteristic frequency of the seismic waves.  This means that surface wave arrivals, which contain lower frequency energy than the body waves, must be used to determine the magnitude.  For a great earthquake, several hours of data must be recorded in order to accurately determine the magnitude.

Thus, accurate estimates of the magnitude can follow an accurate estimate of the location by several hours.  In the case of the M 9.0 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake, the standard methods were inadequate for measuring the very low frequency energy produced and had to be modified.  This delayed the final determination of the magnitude until the next day.

Question: Is there a system to warn populations of an imminent occurrence of a tsunami?

Answer: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is responsible for tsunami monitoring in
the Pacific Basin. Their website is at http://www.prh.noaa.gov/ptwc/. Tragically, no such system exists for the Bay of Bengal where the recent disaster occurred.

Question: What other great (M > 8) earthquakes have occurred in the region?

Answer: Since 1900 and prior to the December 26 earthquake, the largest earthquake along the subduction zone from southern Sumatra to the Andaman Islands occurred in 2000 and had a magnitude of 7.9.  A magnitude 8.4 earthquake occurred in 1797, a magnitude 8.5 in 1861 and a magnitude 8.7 in 1833 . All three ruptured sections of the subduction zone to the south of the recent earthquake.  Interestingly, the 1797 and 1833 quakes are believed to have ruptured roughly the same area with only 36 years separating the events. Paleoseismic evidence shows that great earthquakes or earthquake couplets occur about every 230 years (http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~sieh/publications/a10.html).

Question: What other significant tsunamis have occurred in the region?


1. 1797: A magnitude 8.4 earthquake near the central part of the western Sumatra generated a tsunami that flooded Padang. More than 300 fatalities.  

2. 1833: A magnitude 8.7 earthquake near the south coast of the western Sumatra triggered a huge tsunami that flooded the southern part of western Sumatra. Numerous victims.

3. 1843: A tsunami that came from the southeast and flooded the coast of the Nias Island. Many fatalities.

4. 1861: A magnitude 8.5 earthquake affected all the western coast of Sumatra. Several thousand fatalities.

5. 1881: A magnitude 7.9 earthquake in the Andaman Island region generated a 1 m high tsunami on India’s eastern coast. (http://cires.colorado.edu/~bilham/Oldham1881account.htm)

6. 1883: Krakatau explosion. 36,000 fatalities, primarily on the islands of Java and Sumatra.

7. 1941: A magnitude ~7.7 Adaman Islands earthquake. Anecdotal accounts exist of a tsunami, however, no official records exist.

Tsunami Laboratory, Institute of Computational Mathematics and Mathematical Geophysics  
National Geophysical Data Center
K. Sieh
R. Bilham
Oritz and Billham, 2003 JGR, VOL. 108, NO. B4,  pp 2215

Question: Can earthquakes trigger volcanic eruptions?

Answer: Volcano eruptions have occurred shortly after earthquakes and they may be linked, but scientists are still debating the topic.  Notably, an Andean volcano (Cordon Caulle) began erupting 2 days after the magnitude 9.5 1960 Chile earthquake.

Eruptions of mud volcanoes have occurred in the Andaman Islands following the recent magnitude 9.0 megathrust earthquake. Mud volcanoes consist of surface mud extrusions that vary in size from meters to several kilometers. They sometimes resemble magmatic volcanoes in appearance but they generally consist of low lying mud flows.  Mud volcanoes do not involve magma. They emit mud at significantly cooler temperatures than lava, well below the ~800 degrees Celsius temperatures that characterize volcanic eruptions. Eruptions from mud volcanoes can reach heights of several hundred meters and consist of mud and sometimes burning hydrocarbon gasses.  They are often associated with gas and oil fields. Mud volcanoes were known to exist in the Andaman Islands before the earthquake and in many other regions of the world.  

Deadly mud volcano eruptions are extremely rare because their eruptions generally do not affect large areas. One deadly eruption in Bozdagh, Azerbaijan reportedly killed six shepherds who were camping in the caldera of a mud volcano and about 2,000 of their sheep.  

Question: How have tsunamis affected the United States?

Answer: Please see Can It Happen Here?

Question: Could a tsunami such as the one that affected the Indian Ocean on December, 26, 2004 happen in the United States?

Answer: Please see Can It Happen Here?