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National Science Foundation
ON THE SCENE: SRI LANKA >> PHILIP LIU
Map of Sri Lanka.

Located just east of the southern tip of India, the island nation of Sri Lanka felt the force of the tsunami about two hours after the earthquake occurred. Almost 30,000 people perished there.


Photo of Philip L.-F. Liu.

Philip L. F. Liu, Cornell University

Credit: Robert Barker, Cornell University Photography

Philip Liu, a Cornell professor of engineering, led a team to Sri Lanka from Jan. 10 to Jan. 20 to study wave heights, evidence from sediment deposits and structural damage. His team included Costas Synolakis from the University of Southern California, native Sri Lankan Harindra Joseph Fernando from Arizona State University, Patrick Lynett from Texas A&M University and Bretwood Higman from the University of Washington. Also on the team were geologist Robert Peters and oceanographer Bruce Jaffe, both from USGS, and three scientists from New Zealand. Journalist Tom Paulson of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went with the team.

The investigators split into two groups to make observations at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, and on the east and northeast coasts. One crucial task was to examine sediment deposits, precisely the kind of ephemeral data that are likely to disappear as people clean up in the aftermath. Such deposits help to reveal the tsunami’s velocity and turbulence. The scientists were also interested in eyewitness reports that the ocean at Sri Lanka’s beaches receded before the tsunami arrived. Such accounts contradict the standard theory of tsunami activity, which says the ocean should have receded only east of the earthquake. To the west in Sri Lanka, among other places, waves should have arrived first.

According to Liu, “Maybe the standard model is not quite right.”

The scientists collected as much data as they could, although not as much as they needed. The possibility of encountering land mines or civil strife between the Indonesian government and theTamil minority prevented them from entering some areas.

Fernando, originally from a place near one of the stricken cities, served as listener and counselor, as well as scientist.

Read reports from Liu’s team

Stories also appeared in a series of articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, AZCentral and Nature. 

The ASEE Prism magzine published a feature article on our trip to Sri Lanka.

Photo of Philip Liu.

WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO VISIT THE SITE SO SOON AFTER THE TSUNAMI?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

WHY ARE FIELD SURVEYS CRITICAL TO LEARNING ABOUT TSUNAMIS?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

HOW MIGHT IMPROVED MODELS OF TSUNAMIS MAKE A REAL-WORLD DIFFERENCE?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE WAVES THAT STRUCK SRI LANKA?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

HOW WILL THE FIELD DATA COLLECTED BY RESEARCHERS BE USED?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

WHAT IS THE ADVANTAGE OF CONDUCTING FIELD SURVEYS IN SRI LANKA, FAR FROM THE TSUNAMIíS SOURCE?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE GOAL OF THIS KIND OF RESEARCH?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Philip Liu.

HOW DO YOU PUT A FIELD SURVEY LIKE THIS TOGETHER?
Answer: View Video

Photo of Geologist Starin Fernando.

Examining sediment layers provides clues about the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka. Local geologist Starin Fernando digs down for a look at a deposit.

Credit: Tom Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Photo of Wave's Path.

A team member measures the wave’s path inland in Mankeni, Sri Lanka.

Credit: Bruce Jaffe, USGS Pacific Science Center

Photo of Examining.

Scientists examine a four-and-a-half-inch layer of mud and sand in Kulmunai Kuddi, Sri Lanka.

Credit: Bruce Jaffe, USGS Pacific Science Center

 
 
 
A Special Report After the Tsunami