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Medieval forewarning of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand

Abstract

Recent centuries provide no precedent for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, either on the coasts it devastated or within its source area. The tsunami claimed nearly all of its victims on shores that had gone 200 years or more without a tsunami disaster1. The associated earthquake of magnitude 9.2 defied a Sumatra–Andaman catalogue that contains no nineteenth-century or twentieth-century earthquake larger than magnitude 7.9 (ref. 2). The tsunami and the earthquake together resulted from a fault rupture 1,500 km long that expended centuries’ worth of plate convergence2,3,4,5. Here, using sedimentary evidence for tsunamis6, we identify probable precedents for the 2004 tsunami at a grassy beach-ridge plain 125 km north of Phuket. The 2004 tsunami, running 2 km across this plain, coated the ridges and intervening swales with a sheet of sand commonly 5–20 cm thick. The peaty soils of two marshy swales preserve the remains of several earlier sand sheets less than 2,800 years old. If responsible for the youngest of these pre-2004 sand sheets, the most recent full-size predecessor to the 2004 tsunami occurred about 550–700 years ago.

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Figure 1: Setting.
Figure 2: Cross-sectional shape of sand sheets.
Figure 3: Parallel laminae and radiocarbon ages.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Korsakun for logistical help; C. Tongjeen for permission for digging; V. Chutakositkanon, V. Jittanoon, T. Machado, T. Napradit, S. Pailoplee, S. Phantuwongraj, N. Rajeshwara Rao, S. Srinivasalu, P. Surakiatchai and A. Weerahong for contributions to Phra Thong field and laboratory work; Y. Fujii for providing bathymetric data; and S. Bondevik, M. Cisternas, H. Kelsey, A. Meltzner, K. Sieh, M. Tuttle and J. Woodruff for reviews. This report evolved from surveys supported by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (Thailand), the National Science Foundation (USA), and the US Agency for International Development (participants are listed in Supplementary Table 3). Additional funding was provided by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (to Y.S.), the Thailand Research Fund (to M.C.), and Chulalongkorn University (through P. Charusiri).

Author Contributions All authors participated in the fieldwork, led by K.J. (Supplementary Table 1). B.A. prepared most of the manuscript. Y.S. analysed the diatoms and prepared several of the figures.

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Correspondence to Kruawun Jankaew.

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This file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S7 with Legends and Supplementary Tables S1-S3 (PDF 4776 kb)

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Jankaew, K., Atwater, B., Sawai, Y. et al. Medieval forewarning of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. Nature 455, 1228–1231 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07373

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