When Nature Strikes: Tsunami Classroom Activity

Students will learn that earthquakes are the primary cause of tsunamis. They will learn different ways coastal communities safeguard against the threat of a tsunami. Students will come to appreciate that safeguarding against tsunamis can be a complex issue that involves money, and many different involved parties. Materials:
  • Teacher computer with internet connection/projector (to show video and presentations)
  • Student computers with internet connection (1 per group of 2-3)
  • Tsunami Role Playing Worksheet (one per student
  • Blank paper for group name tags
  • Pen or pencil
Computer Simulation from UN/ISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction), Role Playing Debate is a Windows to the Universe Original
Grade level:
3-4 1-hour class periods (dependent on whether or not research/debate prep is assigned for homework)
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will learn what a tsunami is.
  • Students will learn how an earthquake could cause a tsunami.
  • Students will learn that it is hard to stay in budget while protecting a coastal community from the threat of a tsunami.
  • Students will come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the issue of tsunami mitigation - and see how it crosses the social, economic, technological and political spectrums.
Lesson format:
Computer Interactive, Role Playing Debate

Standards Addressed:

This lesson assists learners in developing proficiency in NGSS Performance Expectation MS-ESS3-2 (Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.)

    NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
  • ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions
  • ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes
  • ESS3.B: Natural Hazards
  • ETS2.A: Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • ETS2.B: Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World
    NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:
  • Developing and using models
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
  • Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
  • Systems and system models


Hour 1
  1. Start learning about tsunamis and the scientists who research them by having class watch the When Nature Strikes: Tsunamis video.
  2. Have students work in groups of 2-3 on computers (with internet access) to complete the Stop Disasters! Tsunami Scenario. Computers will need Flash installed. Give students these instructions before groups begin.
  3. Go to this Stop Disasters! web site at http://www.stopdisastersgame.org/en/home.html.
  4. Click on "Play Game".
  5. Click on "Launch Game".
  6. Read "Instructions" so student groups know how to play the game.
  7. Click on "Play Game" and choose "Tsunami" scenario. Have students start with the Easy level game, move onto the Medium level game, then proceed to the Hard level game. Have them show you proof that they've finished each level of the game (print out certificate or show you their screen at end of game). Or have students play the Easy level game multiple times within your hour, because they will learn and improve from one game to the next.
  8. Not all student groups will successfully complete all 3 levels in an hour's time. Games take about 20 minutes each and it often takes a couple tries to successfully mitigate tsunami risk for a given coastal area/level.

  9. There are so many good points to this game that it really deserves a debriefing time (could be held at start of next class period). Lead a class discussion with some of the following points: What worked and why? Different groups may have been successful with different strategies. It may be worthwhile asking how they would like to live in or visit the village after the changes they made? Was it worth losing the great view of the ocean by putting up a lot of trees? Was the breakwater ugly and would fewer tourists come? What key facts did the students find to be new information? Were any key facts surprising? What was the hardest part of this challenge? How does the game mimic the real life challenge of tsunami mitigation and how does it differ?

Hour 2-4 (depending on how much of debate preparation is assigned for homework)

  1. Have students break into eight groups (size of the group will depend on your class size, e.g., for a class of 24 students, create eight groups of three students each).
  2. Randomly assign one of the following to each group:
    -United Nations (who has $1 billion to spend on tsunami recovery and mitigation)
    -Major world aid organization
    -Organization of local coastal communities
    -National governments - tsunami early warning system
    -Local governments - infrastructure
    -International health organization
    -Association of Building Engineers
    The seven groups will try to secure funding for their group from the UN group by championing their cause.
  3. Print and copy the Role Playing student worksheet (one for each student). Have students work together in their groups to research their groups viewpoint (computers with internet or a library would be very helpful at this point). Give them one class period for research and have them fill out the student worksheet in preparation for the debate that will take place to secure funding for their group. If they are unfinished, have students finish debate preparation for homework or during next class period.
  4. On day of the debate, arrange classroom with chairs/tables in a circle so all parties can see each other. Have teams create name tags saying their group name (or group name they have created) and place on their tables in front of them. Give each group interested in securing funding the chance to read their 2-minute opening argument. Cut the group's spokesperson off right at 2-minutes to allow other teams to have a chance to give their arguments. Now allow the UN team chairperson to lead a discussion or debate amongst the groups - any group member might speak, ask questions of the other groups or argue their cause once recognized by the chairperson. The chairperson must move quickly around the room so that all arguments are heard.
  5. Give the UN group 10 minutes to decide their allocations of funding. Their decision must be unanimous. Give the UN group time to present their funding decisions (this might be done the next day if the UN needs more time to discuss/make decisions or would like to put together a Powerpoint slide or posterboard stating their decisions). It might also be done the next day, if you would like the groups to be able to "appeal" and fight for their cause once more in a group discussion. Give the UN one more chance to alter their funding decisions to come up with a final unanimous decision.
  6. Have students finish filling out their student worksheets during class or for homework.


Assess student ability to work together as a team during computer simulation exercise.

During the role playing debate, assess student ability to communicate convincing arguments, as well as apply learned information to make solid deductions about the the mitigation of tsunamis for coastal communities.


Always use safe laboratory practices.


Have students clean up their individual desk areas.


  • Have students research and report on various historical tsunami events - when they occurred, where they occurred, damage done, what caused the tsunami? Ideas for historical events include: 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2011 Japan Tsunami, 1946 Tsunami in Laupoahoehoe, Hawaii, 1908 Messina Tsunami, 1755 Lisbon Tsunami, the Storegga Slide, or the 365 AD Tsunami.
  • Choose another classroom activity to complete from this list compiled by the National Weather Service covering the topics of tsunamis.
  • For a very introductory lesson, access Shake Out's Tsunami in a Bottle hands-on activity. You will need 2L plastic soda bottles (1 per group of 2-3), small gravel (fish tank gravel size), a water source, and the What Do I See Worksheet for each student. The lesson includes notes for the teacher leading a class discussion about tsunamis.

    Possible extensions to Tsunami in a Bottle that relate to this lesson:
    -Students could be asked what it would be like on the coast if the earthquake first lifted the ocean (push the bottle upwards) compared to if the earthquake first lowered the ocean (push the bottle downward). That way they could see that it would be possible for the earthquake to cause the water to recede first. That fits in well with the warning from Stop Disasters Game that "CAUTION - If there is noticeable recession in water away from the shoreline, this is nature's tsunami warning and it should be heeded. You should move away immediately."

  • Have students explore Stop Disasters! to learn about other natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, or floods.


A tsunami (pronounced soo-NAH-mee) is a series of waves, generated in a body of water by a disturbance such as an earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, or meteorite impact. Tsunamis can devastate coastlines, causing major property damage and loss of life. Some people call tsunamis "tidal waves", but these monstrously large waves really have little to do with tides, so the term "tidal wave" is not really appropriate.

Tsunami waves are different from the waves you can find rolling into the coast of a lake or ocean. Those waves are generated by wind offshore, and their wavelength (the distance between the crests or highest points of the waves) might be a just 10 feet (a few meters) for small waves or about 330 feet (~100 meters) for large waves. In contrast, a tsunami in the open ocean can have a wavelength of more than 300,000 feet (100 km). Tsunami waves travel very quickly--up to 440 miles per hour (700 kilometers per hour)--and although they have huge wavelengths, they are typically less than 3 feet (a meter high) while they are traveling through the open ocean.

As a tsunami travels into the shallower water near the coast, it changes dramatically. Its height increases and its wavelength decreases as it nears shore, so although a tsunami is often imperceptible at sea, it may grow to be tens of feet (a few meters) or more in height near the coast and have a tremendous amount of energy. When it finally reaches the coast, a tsunami may appear as a rapidly rising or falling tide or a series of waves with a maximum height of about 100 feet (30 meters) above the level of the sea.

A few minutes before a tsunami wave hits, the water near shore may recede, exposing the ocean floor. Often the first wave may not be the largest. Additional waves may arrive at the coast every 10 to 60 minutes and move much faster than a person can run. The danger from a tsunami can last for several hours after the arrival of the first wave. Unlike other waves, tsunami waves typically do not curl and break.

Coasts affected by a tsunami will be severely eroded, and a tsunami can cause flooding hundreds of meters inland. The water moves with such force that it is capable of crushing homes and other buildings. This power was demonstrated recently when in 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan generated tsunami waves that reached heights of more than 130 ft (40 meters) as they reached land. The tsunami completely destroyed eight villages and caused severe damage in many others, killed more than 16,000 people, and caused a major nuclear accident as waves damaged a reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Similarly, another earthquake that occurred in 2004 in the Indian Ocean triggered tsunami waves that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries, showing just how dangerous tsunami can be when they occur in regions of the world without tsunami warning systems.

Shoreline communities around the world can be affected by tsunamis. This world map shows areas of high, moderate and low risk of tsunamis. To find out more specifics about your local area, use this mapplet simulation. Areas like the Cascadia Subduction Zone mentioned in the video are at high risk because of the likelihood of earthquake and tsunami occurrences.

Because of the threat tsunami pose to populations living near the sea, scientists are now studying ways of making structures like harbors and buildings better able to resist the effects of tsunami waves, as well as ways of identifying the earliest warning signs of a tsunami and alerting people who are at risk so they can seek shelter. Although no one can predict when or where the earthquakes that cause tsunami will occur, this research and further education of the public will hopefully lessen their impact on coastal communities.



Last modified April 28, 2016 by Jennifer Bergman.

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