National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2006

Differences in tsunami generation between the December 26, 2004 and March 28, 2005 Sumatra earthquakes

Geist, E.L., S.L. Bilek, D. Arcas, and V.V. Titov

Earth Planets Space, 58(2), 185–193 (2006)

Source parameters affecting tsunami generation and propagation for the MW > 9.0 December 26, 2004 and the MW = 8.6 March 28, 2005 earthquakes are examined to explain the dramatic difference in tsunami observations. We evaluate both scalar measures (seismic moment, maximum slip, potential energy) and finite-source representations (distributed slip and far-field beaming from finite source dimensions) of tsunami generation potential. There exists significant variability in local tsunami runup with respect to the most readily available measure, seismic moment. The local tsunami intensity for the December 2004 earthquake is similar to other tsunamigenic earthquakes of comparable magnitude. In contrast, the March 2005 local tsunami was deficient relative to its earthquake magnitude. Tsunami potential energy calculations more accurately reflect the difference in tsunami severity, although these calculations are dependent on knowledge of the slip distribution and therefore difficult to implement in a real-time system. A significant factor affecting tsunami generation unaccounted for in these scalar measures is the location of regions of seafloor displacement relative to the overlying water depth. The deficiency of the March 2005 tsunami seems to be related to concentration of slip in the down-dip part of the rupture zone and the fact that a substantial portion of the vertical displacement field occurred in shallow water or on land. The comparison of the December 2004 and March 2005 Sumatra earthquakes presented in this study is analogous to previous studies comparing the 1952 and 2003 Tokachi-Oki earthquakes and tsunamis, in terms of the effect slip distribution has on local tsunamis. Results from these studies indicate the difficulty in rapidly assessing local tsunami runup from magnitude and epicentral location information alone.

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