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A 1,000-year sediment record of tsunami recurrence in northern Sumatra


The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 reached maximum wave heights of 35 m in Aceh, the northernmost province of Sumatra1,2. Both the tsunami and the associated Sumatra–Andaman earthquake were unprecedented in Acehnese history3,4. Here we use sand sheets to extend tsunami history 1,000 years into Aceh’s past. The 2004 tsunami deposited a sand sheet up to 1.8 km inland on a marshy beach ridge plain. Sediment cores from these coastal marshes revealed two older extensive sand sheets with similar sediment characteristics. These sheets, deposited soon after ad 1290–1400 and ad 780–990, probably resulted from earlier tsunamis. An additional sand sheet of limited extent might correlate with a documented smaller tsunami of ad 1907. These findings, a first step towards a palaeotsunami record for northern Sumatra, suggest that damage-causing tsunamis in Aceh recur infrequently enough for entire human lifetimes to typically elapse between them. Such recurrence adds to the challenge of preparing communities along the northern Indian Ocean shorelines for future tsunamis.

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Figure 1: Index maps.
Figure 2: Examples of sand sheets near Meulaboh.


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We thank the field offices of Caritas Switzerland and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Meulaboh for logistical support during fieldwork; D. Plöthner and U. Meyer for providing maps and digital elevation data for the study area; the SIM data centre of the Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Board (BRR), in Banda Aceh, for providing aerial photographs; T. Ninck for help in the field; J. Beitel for assistance with laboratory work; K. Moran, S. Lüthi, S. Phipps, A. Smith, N. Wells and J. Ortiz for discussions; and B. Atwater, S. Bondevik, Y. Sawai and K. Sieh for reviews. The work was funded by the Swiss Science Foundation, the US National Science Foundation, and Vassar College.

Author Contributions K.M., W.F., W.K. and S.S. did the field work. D.K. performed the diatom analyses. A.M. and K.M. conducted the grain-size analyses. W.F. and B.M. did the mapping. K.M. prepared the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Katrin Monecke.

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Monecke, K., Finger, W., Klarer, D. et al. A 1,000-year sediment record of tsunami recurrence in northern Sumatra. Nature 455, 1232–1234 (2008).

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