Tim Folger

2013 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Freelance journalist Tim Folger received the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. Folger was honored for the article “The Calm Before the Wave,” published in February 2012 by National Geographic magazine. In this feature report, Folger recounts the story of tsunamis, especially the ones that struck Japan and Indonesia in the past decade, exploring the science of those hazards, their history, the destruction and terror they inflict, and efforts to improve survival odds for victims of future inundations. The article brings to life the personal terror, the scientific puzzles, and the enduring, seemingly insurmountable dangers to large populations around the world from these hazards. The Sullivan Award is for work published with a deadline pressure of more than 1 week.


A writer needs two distinct qualities to produce an article like “The Calm Before the Wave,” the piece on tsunamis for which Tim Folger is being honored with the 2013 Walter Sullivan Award. Like any good science writer, he needs the ability to sort through a large mass of scientific information and transform it into a clear, compelling narrative. But he also needs an empathic eye and ear—the ability to feel his way into the lives of people whose stories are utterly different from his own and to see and hear the telling details that will make those people come alive on the page.

Tim went around the world to report this article. He traveled in Japan and in Indonesia, to Singapore, and to the Pacific Northwest. National Geographic’s lead times are so long that Tim’s piece was always destined to appear many months after the Japanese tsunami of March 2011. Every other media outlet on the planet was bound to have a whack at the subject before Tim’s take on it could see print. The pressure was on him to deliver something fresh and lasting.

Tim did just that. Readers will remember the picture he lodged in their minds of how tsunamis form at subduction zones and cross entire oceans and of how detector buoys can thus make a difference. They’ll remember the scars Tim saw on the palms of Jin Sato, mayor of Minamisanriku, Japan, who as a child in 1960 survived a tsunami that began off Chile and who survived the 2011 tsunami, as his town was destroyed around him, by clenching a radio antenna all night long. Readers will remember too the uniformed school children in Padang, Indonesia, chanting the 99 names of Allah as they’re put through a tsunami drill by their teacher—a teacher who lives with the knowledge that her first graders won’t be able to run fast enough to get to high ground. “The fundamental problem is that there are seven billion of us, and too many of us are living in places that are dangerous,” paleoseismologist Kerry Sieh told Tim. “We’ve built ourselves into situations where we simply can’t get away.”

Thanks to Tim, millions of readers around the globe now have an indelible understanding of that problem in all its dimensions, scientific and otherwise. My colleagues at National Geographic and I are very proud of his work. We thank the American Geophysical Union for recognizing it, and we congratulate Tim on this much ­deserved award.

—ROBERT KUNZIG, National Geographic Magazine, Washington, D. C.


Few publications have the resources to send journalists halfway around world in pursuit of a story. National Geographic gave me the opportunity to see firsthand the horrific aftermath of a tsunami and to meet with survivors. I’m very grateful to National Geographic for funding nearly a month of costly travel in four different countries. It’s a privilege to write for such a remarkable magazine.

While working on this story I met with many scientists, including several AGU members, who were very generous with their time. I would especially like to thank Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who, besides providing much valuable information, graciously agreed to review my article before publication. Jody Bourgeois of the University of Washington, David Yamaguchi, an independent researcher, and Mary Ann Reinhart of Geoengineers in Tacoma tramped through knee-deep mud to show me 300-year-old tsunami deposits along the Washington coast. Kerry Sieh of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore gave me a detailed and frightening overview of the ongoing threat tsunamis pose to countries bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Hiroo Kanamori of the California Institute of Technology patiently answered many very basic questions about tsunamis.

I would also like to thank Jin Sato, the mayor of Minamisanriku, one of several Japanese towns that were obliterated by the March 2011 tsunami. Mayor Sato met with me at a time when far more pressing concerns demanded his attention. The Japanese Red Cross helped to arrange interviews with several survivors of the tsunami. On the other side of the Pacific, Lee Shipman, the emergency management director for the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Washington State, showed me how her small community has become a model of tsunami preparedness. John Schelling, Brynne Walker, Mark Clemens, and Dave Nelson of Washington’s Emergency Management Division and Nathan Wood of the USGS in Vancouver, Wash., talked with me about what Washington, Oregon, and California have done—and still need to do—to prepare for the inevitable tsunami that will one day hit the region.

I could not have written this story without the help of four exceptionally resourceful women: Kay Ohara translated for me in Japan; Vivi Yanti and Patra Rina Dewi were my indispensable guides in Banda Aceh and Padang, Indonesia; and Irina Rafliana of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta suggested many valuable contacts. I’m much indebted to Robert Kunzig, my editor at National Geographic. Without his insight, skill, and encouragement, the American Geophysical Union would be giving this year’s Walter Sullivan Award to a different writer. So, on behalf of a number of people, I thank AGU for this wonderful honor, which recognizes the work of many hands. And, finally, this assignment renewed my appreciation for the vital research carried out by members of AGU and their colleagues in the worldwide geosciences community. Were it not for their efforts, there would be no tsunami early­warning systems in any of the world’s oceans. In the decades ahead those systems will save thousands of lives.

—TIM FOLGER, Gallup, N. M.