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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: March 29, 2005


Wave That Shook the World homepage

On December 26, 2004, at 7:59 a.m. local time, an undersea section of the Earth's crust slipped along a 700-mile-long fault off the coast of Sumatra, setting in motion a train of destructive waves called tsunamis that left well over 250,000 people dead or missing. In "Wave That Shook the World," NOVA traces exactly what happened, and why.

Before 2004, the Indian Ocean's most devastating tsunami was caused by the titanic eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in 1883. (Immediately following the original airing on March 29, PBS revisits this earlier disaster with "KRAKATOA," a 90-minute docudrama.) Causing nearly 40,000 deaths, Krakatoa was long considered an almost unimaginable catastrophe, until last December's tsunami showed that humans are more vulnerable than ever to rare but inevitable natural disasters.

This program tells the minute-by-minute story of the 2004 tsunami, featuring video footage and scientific analysis of the onrushing waves that spread for 3,000 miles around the Indian Ocean basin. NOVA interviews eyewitnesses, including one of the few people who survived when a train carrying 1,500 passengers along a coastal route in Sri Lanka was swamped by the waves; and two men who videotaped the second, more destructive wave that hit their beachfront bar in Thailand. Thousands had been lulled into a false sense of security after the first wave passed. Tsunamis, however, usually consist of several waves, separated by many minutes or even hours, and the biggest can come at any time.

Some geologists estimate that the earthquake that caused the disaster measured 9.3 on the Richter scale, making it the second largest on record. The quake occurred near the surface of the seafloor, where one plate of the Earth's crust is slipping beneath another, creating periodic releases of pent-up energy. NOVA uses detailed animation to show how the quake raised a portion of the seafloor, which also lifted all the water lying above it. This movement caused a series of massive waves that radiated outward from the quake's epicenter at speeds approaching that of a passenger jet. (For a detailed look at the event, see Anatomy of a Tsunami.)

Barely a minute after the quake, computers at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii picked up seismic signals and automatically notified scientists. Within a few minutes they had issued a warning bulletin. But they still did not know the full magnitude of the quake or whether it had triggered a tsunami. The Center's ocean-sensing gauges are confined to the Pacific, where tsunamis regularly occur. No similar network or warning system exists in the Indian Ocean.

Fifteen minutes after the temblor, a colossal wall of water struck the northwest coast of Sumatra and washed several miles inland, destroying everything in its path. Over the next few hours, a series of gigantic waves traveled across the Indian Ocean, killing tens of thousands of people in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.

The degree of destruction is almost impossible to fathom. It was "like the aftermath of an atomic bomb, maybe worse," says disaster photographer Geoff Mackley as he surveys the Sumatran coast, site of the earliest waves, which are estimated to have been as high as 60 feet. The area is littered with debris of every description, from battered factories to shattered concrete breakwaters to ships tossed around like toys.

"KRAKATOA" addresses a catastrophe at the southern end of Sumatra, in the strait separating the island from Java. There, in the late spring and summer of 1883, the volcano Krakatoa came to life with ominous rumblings that culminated in the largest volcanic explosion ever recorded. The program brings this legendary event to life with dramatic recreations and computer animation.

The eruption generated a wave that was even more powerful than the tsunami of 2004, although it didn't spread as far and resulted in about 15 percent as many casualties. (See Once and Future Tsunamis for more on this and other deadly tsunamis through history.) Krakatoa itself was obliterated by the explosion, which was heard thousands of miles away. Airborne debris spread around the world, producing vivid sunsets for years. Today, a new volcano is rising near where Krakatoa once stood. This discovery is a stark reminder that, with nature, the question is not could it happen again but when.

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Banda Aceh

An Indonesian man looks at a boat left stranded atop a house in Banda Aceh, the provincial Sumatran capital that was desolated by the tsunami.

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Wave That Shook the World
Wave of the Future

Wave of the Future
What will it take to be ready for the next major tsunami?

Ask the Expert

Ask the Expert
Tsunami expert Lori Dengler answers viewers' e-mailed questions.

Anatomy of a Tsunami

Anatomy of a Tsunami
Follow the life cycle of the 2004 tsunami on this interactive map.

Once and Future Tsunamis

Once and Future Tsunamis
Learn about ten deadly tsunamis—and where the next could strike.



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