1852 Banda Sea earthquake

The 1852 Banda Sea earthquake struck on 26 November, 1852 at 07:40 local time, affecting coastal communities on the Banda Islands. The earthquake had an estimated moment magnitude of 7.5 or 8.4 to 8.8. It caused violent shaking lasting five minutes, and was assigned IX on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale in the Maluku Islands.[2] A tsunami measuring up to 8 meters slammed into the islands of Banda Neira, Saparua, Haruku and Ceram. The tsunami caused major damage, washing away many villages, ships and residents. At least 60 people were killed in the earthquake and tsunami.

1852 Banda Sea earthquake
1852 Banda Sea earthquake is located in Indonesia
1852 Banda Sea earthquake
Local dateNovember 26, 1852 (1852-11-26)
Magnitude7.5 Mw
8.4–8.8 Mw
Epicenter5°15′S 129°45′E / 5.25°S 129.75°E / -5.25; 129.75Coordinates: 5°15′S 129°45′E / 5.25°S 129.75°E / -5.25; 129.75
Areas affectedDutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia)
Max. intensityIX (Violent)
Tsunami+8 metres (26 ft)[1]
Casualties60+ dead[1]

Tectonic settingEdit

The Banda Sea is situated in a region of complex convergence involving the Australian and Sunda plates. This complex tectonic interaction has broken the crust into a number of minor plates and microplates including the Banda Sea, Timor, Molucca Sea and Bird's Head plates. Resembling an arch, this convergent boundary is one of the most complex in the world. Oceanic lithosphere subduct to a depth greater than 600 km beneath the Banda Sea. As a consequence, the Banda Sea is a seismically active region. Many large earthquakes in the Banda Sea occur at a hypocenter depth of up to 600 km, including an Mw  7.6 which struck at 397 km depth. This intermediate-focus (70–300 km) and deep-focus (>300 km) earthquakes are the result of dip-slip faulting within the oceanic lithosphere, which usually do not result in significant impact. The 1938 Banda Sea earthquake, an Mw  8.5 event was an intermediate-focus thrust earthquake.[3]


An illustration of Banda Neira in the 1880s which was badly impacted by the earthquake of 1852.

At about 07:40 to 07:50 local time, the island of Banda Neira was rocked by a series of intense "vertical shocks" which developed into rolling motions. The rocking motion was directed in a northwest-southeast orientation for five minutes. The first shock was so strong that nearly every home on the island collapsed. The houses that withstood the shaking suffered so much cracks that they became uninhabitable. Papenberg, a small peak on the island reportedly collapsed as well. Many large cracks were formed at the beach on the island. A similar situation was also described on Banda Besar. The tremors were accompanied by a loud rumble described as "cannon shots".[4][5]

On the islands of Rosengain and Pulau Ai, the earthquake was also felt with a great force, later assigned IX on the Mercalli intensity scale.[4]

On Haruku Island, the earthquake formed cracks in the walls of a fort and church. Damage to structures was also reported on Saparua. The island of Ambon was undamaged but felt the tremors for five minutes intensely. The swaying of trees and flagstaffs was observed on Bacan Island.[4]

Three newly formed but small islands were seen after the earthquake.[4] The islands were "soft and had a yellow golden color" to them. Coral remains and yellow sand was likely the composition of the islands. One of the islands later washed away while the remaining two had vegetation grown on them. Another island located at 5° 35' S and 133° 0' E, 250 meters in diameter was also discovered.[1]

In Surabaya, Java, weak tremors were felt,[4] but they were likely due to a separate event.[6]


A coastal town on the island of Banda Neira. The coastlines were struck by the tsunami of 1852.

The highest tsunami wave was recorded on the island of Banda Neira with a height of 8 meters. It struck the island approximately 25 minutes after the shaking had stopped. Many residents who witnessed the oncoming waves were frightened and fled for the hills. Sixty boat crews died when the tsunami overcame the breakwater and embankments where they had sought refuge. The waves carried with it many proas, smashing them against the embankment. Waves also wiped out buildings at the coast. Four separate waves were observed with regular intervals until 10:30 when the water began to calm down.[1]

On Pulau Ai, the tsunami was significant, being one meter higher than the usual flood tide level. Descriptions of the tsunami in Ambon is unclear, with sources claiming the waves were 8 meters tall while other stating 20 cm higher than the flood tide mark. Flood damage to homes, proas and beaches occurred seen on Ceram Island.[1]

Earthquake and tsunami originsEdit

Due to the lack of instrumental data, the mechanism of the earthquake is still debatable, with published sources suggesting the event was a large megathrust earthquake with an estimated moment magnitude (Mw ) of 8.4 or greater. Other research journals claim it was a shallow normal faulting event with a smaller magnitude of 7.5.[7]

Normal fault theoryEdit

A publication in 2020 led by Phil Cummins suggests the event did not occur on a megathrust fault, but rather, a shallow normal fault in the Banda Sea. The normal fault has was determined as being the Banda Detachment, a shallow-dipping structure that accommodates extension of the Banda Sea. It is thought to be the only major potentially seismogenic structure to cause heavy shaking and a large tsunami. The earthquake potential and history of this structure is still poorly understood, and have never been considered a tsunami and seismic hazard to the region.[7] The Weber Deep, a 7.2-km deep forearc basin located between the megathrust front and Banda Arc volcanic chain is a massive fault scarp which formed when extension along the Banda Detachment started.[8] However, there have been no instrumentally recorded earthquakes on this fault, therefore, it is suggested that the structure is creeping aseismically, or that earthquakes on this fault have occurred before the birth of modern seismic instruments.[9]

The research presented a much smaller earthquake moment magnitude of only 7.5 with a rupture close to the Banda Islands. An earthquake anywhere on the megathrust is unlikely to result in violent ground motions as described in the historical accounts because it is too far from the islands.[9] The study dismissed all reports of shaking felt in Surabaya, Java as being a separate, local earthquake which timing coincided with the one in the Banda Sea.[9] The event in Java, named the 1852 Grati earthquake, is thought to have a magnitude of Mw  5.7 to 6.0 and occurred on the Pasuruan Fault.[6]

Explicit descriptions of the tsunami in the Banda Islands described a rise in sea level, followed by a drop. This meant the earthquake could not be sourced from a subduction zone megathrust event as such a tsunami would be observed as a drawback of the water first in the same location. The Banda Islands situated on the overriding plate would experience a negative wave first before a large tsunami could hit, thus a drawback would be observed. Furthermore, a megathrust earthquake-sourced tsunami would take much longer for it to hit the islands, while historic descriptions stated that the tsunami arrived 20 minutes after the five minutes of shaking.[9]

The research paper presented two nearby plausible tsunami sources; the western seafloor expression of the Banda Detachment at 100 km south southeast of Banda Neira, or a slump located on the eastern edge of the Weber Deep. Modeling the tsunami sourced by a slump fits the well-documented accounts of the tsunami better. The associated tsunami therefore was caused by submarine slumping triggered by the Mw 7.5 earthquake.[9]

Megathrust theoryEdit

In a research paper published by Fisher and Harris in 2016, they concluded that the Banda Sea earthquake and tsunami was the result of thrust faulting on a subduction zone. A series of reconstructions with varying locations and maximum slip yielded moment magnitudes of 8.4 to 8.8. Using the models, they concluded that the earthquake was a thrust faulting, megathrust event which ruptured a subduction zone along the Tanimbar Trough. They estimate at least 10 to 15 meters of slip had been cumulated, which would suggest this event had a minimum moment magnitude of 8.4.[10]

A 2021 paper led by Hayden Ringer claimed this event was on the subduction zone and had a larger moment magnitude of 8.8, located southeast of Seram Island.[11] The authors noted Phil Cummins' conclusion (normal fault theory) that the resulting tsunami was by an earthquake-triggered slump of low possibility because the 1938 Banda Sea earthquake did not trigger a large tsunami from a major submarine.[11]

They also noted the tsunami reached distant locations with heights greater than what would be expected for a landslide-induced tsunami.[11] Had the tsunami been triggered by a submarine landslide, the waves would have weakened significantly at a faster rate than if triggered by faulting.[11]

Furthermore, Cummins counter-argued the megathrust earthquake and tsunami claim by Fisher and Harris on the absence of a drawback along the coast which was not described in observational accounts but reflected in their model.[10] However, the accounts of survivors recalled a surge in seawater, followed by the tsunami waves.[9] Ringer's paper stated that the non-existent record of a drawback associated with the negative wave does not rule out the plausibility of a megathrust earthquake. His team also distinguished the day and period of the event, which was during the spring tide, meaning tide levels were at extreme lows. This would mean even a negative wave would not result in a significant difference in sea level. It is therefore unlikely that Dutch officials who took account of the earthquake and tsunami would document a barely noticeable change in tide level.[11]

Modeling of their earthquake shows that the 1852 event had a magnitude of approximately 8.8 Mw . The earthquake epicenter coordinate is located at 4.5°S, 131.5°E, southeast of Seram Island.[11]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e "Tsunami Event Information BANDA SEA". ngdc.noaa.gov. NCEI. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  2. ^ "Significant Earthquake Information INDONESIA: MALUKU: BANDANAIRA". ngdc.noaa.gov. NCEI. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  3. ^ "M 8.5 – Banda Sea". earthquake.usgs.gov. USGS. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e Wichmann, Arthur (1918). Die erdbeben des Indischen Archipels bis zum Jahre 1857 [Earthquakes of the Indian Archipelago Until the Year 1857] (in German) (20 ed.). Afdeling Natuurkunde Nederlandse Verhandelingen. p. 193.
  5. ^ Harris, Ron; Major, Jonathan (2016). "Waves of destruction in the East Indies: the Wichmann catalogue of earthquakes and tsunami in the Indonesian region from 1538 to 1877". Special Publications. Geological Society, London. 441: 9-46. doi:10.1144/SP441.2. Retrieved 19 June 2021.
  6. ^ a b G. I. Marliyani, J. R. Arrowsmith, H. Helmi (2019). "Evidence for Multiple Ground-Rupturing Earthquakes in the Past 4,000 Years Along the Pasuruan Fault, East Java, Indonesia: Documentation of Active Normal Faulting in the Javan Backarc". Tectonics. 38 (4): 1489-1506. Retrieved 18 June 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ a b Ignatius R. Pranantyo, Mohammad Heidarzadeh & Phil R. Cummins (2021). "Complex tsunami hazards in eastern Indonesia from seismic and non-seismic sources: Deterministic modeling based on historical and modern data". Geoscience Letters. 8 (20). doi:10.1186/s40562-021-00190-y. Retrieved 19 June 2021.
  8. ^ "Researchers find biggest exposed fault on Earth". Canberra, Australia: Australian National University. 28 November 2016. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Phil R. Cummins, Ignatius R. Pranantyo, Jonathan M. Pownall, Jonathan D. Griffin, Irwan Meilano & Siyuan Zhao (2020). "Earthquakes and tsunamis caused by low-angle normal faulting in the Banda Sea, Indonesia". Nature Geoscience. 13: 312–318. doi:10.1038/s41561-020-0545-x. hdl:10138/327490. Retrieved 18 June 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ a b Fisher, T.L., Harris, R.A. (2016). "Reconstruction of 1852 Banda Arc megathrust earthquake and tsunami". Natural Hazards. 83: 667–689. doi:10.1007/s11069-016-2345-6. Retrieved 18 June 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ a b c d e f H. Ringer, J. P. Whitehead, J. Krometis, R. A. Harris, N. Glatt-Holtz, S. Giddens, C. Ashcraft, G. Carver, A. Robertson, M. Harward, J. Fullwood, K. Lightheart, R. Hilton, A. Avery, C. Kesler, M. Morrise, M. H. Klein (2021). "Methodological Reconstruction of Historical Seismic Events From Anecdotal Accounts of Destructive Tsunamis: A Case Study for the Great 1852 Banda Arc Mega-Thrust Earthquake and Tsunami" (PDF). Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth. 126 (4). arXiv:2009.14272. doi:10.1029/2020JB021107. Retrieved 19 June 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

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