Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Marine Geology and Geophysics (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Eugene C. Rankey - Committee Co-Chair

Second Committee Member

Gregor P. Eberli - Committee Co-Chair

Third Committee Member

Falk Amelung - Committee Member

Fourth Committee Member

Andrew L. Moore - Outside Committee Member


Tsunamis are low amplitude, large wavelength waves that can significantly impact coastal regions. Although their destructive impacts are clear from recent events, the frequency with which tsunamis occur is less well constrained. To better understand the tsunami history and coastal impacts in Sri Lanka, this study compares sediments deposited by the December 26, 2004, tsunami to older lagoon sediments in search of evidence for paleotsunami deposits. Results from this study illustrate that the coastal lagoons in Sri Lanka preserve tsunami deposits and can provide the first steps towards constraining the paleotsunami history of the Indian Ocean. Because Sri Lanka is a far field location relative to the Sumatra-Andaman subduction zone, the preserved tsunami deposits are likely mega-tsunami events similar in size and destruction to the December 26, 2004, tsunami. The December 26, 2004, M 9.1?9.3 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake generated a massive tsunami that propagated throughout the Indian Ocean, causing extreme coastal inundation and destruction. The southeastern coastline of Sri Lanka was impacted by the 2004 tsunami where between one and three waves inundated coastal villages, lagoons, and lowlands, killing more than 35,000 people. Karagan Lagoon, located on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka, was impacted by two waves from this tsunami. Although the lagoon commonly is dominated by organic-rich, siliciclastic clays, silts, and fine sands, the 2004 tsunami deposited a distinct layer of coarse quartz-dominated sand between 1 and 22 cm thick. The base of the 2004 deposit is sharp and erosional and some layers feature faint subparallel laminations. The 2004 tsunami deposit is generally continuous, fines landward, and is confined to the eastern portion of Karagan Lagoon, in the direction from which the tsunami arrived. Sri Lankan lore, in conjunction with reconstructed historical earthquake data, suggests that other tsunamis likely affected Sri Lanka in the past. To test this, twenty-two 1?4 m sediment cores were collected from Karagan Lagoon, providing key information for unraveling the pre-2004 tsunami history of southeastern Sri Lanka. At depth, sixteen cores from Karagan Lagoon contain as many as ten distinct sand layers, including the deposit from the 2004 tsunami. These cores feature siliciclastic clays, silts, and fine sands that dominate the background lagoonal sedimentation that are punctuated by coarse sand layers. These sand-rich layers feature sharp, erosional bases, coarsen and fine upwards, vary in thickness from 1 to 22 cm, and include varying percentages of fine to very coarse sand, with a low-abundance of silt and clay. In the best constrained interval, three coarse sand layers include composition, grain size, grading, and sedimentary structures similar to the sediments deposited by the December 26, 2004, tsunami. The layers are identified in five of the twenty-two cores, although the thicknesses vary. Six additional less well constrained sand layers are present in four of the twenty-two cores. Cores located closer to the lagoon mouth and the eastern coastline (the direction from which the 2004 tsunami arrived) contain more sand layers than cores farther away from the tsunami wave entry point. On the basis of their sedimentary structures, geometry, and extent, these sandy layers are interpreted to represent paleotsunami deposits. AMS radiocarbon dating was used to date the bulk organic sediment from above, between, and below the ten paleotsunami layers in sediment cores from Karagan Lagoon to constrain the timing of events in southeastern Sri Lanka. Material from within the deposit was not dated because it was likely transported from various sources during the event and thus does not represent the age of the tsunami. AMS radiocarbon dates from above and below the paleotsunami layers were calibrated from radiocarbon years before present to calendar years before present (Cal YBP) using OxCal v. 4.0 (Bronk Ramsey, 1995; Bronk Ramsey, 2001) with calibration curve IntCal04 (Reimer et al., 2004). The constraining time intervals of tsunami deposits II?VI were averaged to yield deposits of ages 226, 1641, 4198, 4457, 4924 Cal YBP. Tsunamis VII?X only had sediment dated immediately below the deposit and therefore were deposited prior to 6249, 6455, 6665, and 6840 Cal YBP. In total, ten tsunami deposits, including the 2004 event, are preserved in Karagan Lagoon on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. The Karagan Lagoon paleotsunami deposits provide constraints on the recurrence interval of tsunamis similar in magnitude to the 2004 event. The uppermost paleotsunami units were deposited 226, 1641, 4198, 4457, and 4924 Cal YBP, based on AMS radiocarbon dating. Thus, including the 2004 event, six tsunamis affected Karagan Lagoon in the past 5500 years, yielding a recurrence interval of approximately 916 years. Three of the six events, however, occur between ~4000 and 5500 years yielding a recurrence interval of approximately 500 years for this 1500 year period. Four additional older paleotsunami deposits occur in the deeper sections of the cores and were deposited prior to 6249, 6455, 6665, and 6840 Cal YBP, yielding a recurrence interval of approximately 200 years for this time period. Assuming that Karagan Lagoon contains a complete record of tsunami events, the recurrence of tsunamis similar in magnitude to the December 26, 2004, event can occur as often as 200 years. This ?recurrence interval? is illustrated by our data for the time period with increased tsunami activity from ~4000 to 7000 Cal YBP. Tsunamis may potentially affect Sri Lanka at relatively high frequency during certain time intervals though the overall recurrence pattern of these events displays a highly irregular distribution. This extreme variability needs to be taken into consideration when such events are related to earthquake recurrence intervals. Prior to the December 26, 2004, tsunami, paleotsunami deposits in the Indian Ocean were largely unstudied and consequently, Holocene tsunami chronology was incompletely understood for the Indian Ocean. The results from this study represents the first geologic evidence of paleotsunami deposits in Sri Lanka generated by tsunamis during the past 7000 years. The identification of these paleotsunami deposits illustrates that the 2004 tsunami was not a ?one-time event,? but in fact has ancient counterparts.


Holocene; Sri Lanka; Coastal Lagoons; Paleotsunamis; Tsunami Sediments; Tsunamis; Tsunami Deposits