Anniversary of world's largest tsunami - KMSP-TV

Anniversary of world's largest tsunami

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57 years ago this week, the world's largest tsunami in recorded history hit Lituya Bay, Alaska. This gave scientists the first "modern day" look at what a tidal wave can do. But this was no ordinary Tsunami. Up until then, scientists were only aware of tsunamis created solely by earthquakes (lifting of the sea floor generating a large wave from the displacement of water). The Lituya Bay tsunami stemmed from an earthquake, but was the direct result of a gigantic landslide… one of the first known of its kind. On July 9th, 1958 an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle jolted the shoreline and allowed an entire hillside to collapse sending 3000 feet of rock plunging into the waters of the Gilbert Inlet. The impact generated a 1720 foot tsunami to the other side of the inlet and sent water crashing through the rest of the 7 mile long Lituya Bay. This is the highest wave in recorded history. Thousands of trees were uprooted and swept away by the wave. The Bay can be seen in an image below. The hillside fell in the red shaded area with the damage path of the wave in the yellow shaded areas.

Clearly there was a large amount of destruction across the bay. Amazingly, there was just an estimated of 2 dead (an unknown boat may or may not have been in the mouth of the bay with 2 individuals aboard.) But there were 4 people that survived and rode out the wave on 2 different vessels. Here is one of the witness accounts:

"Mr. and Mrs. Swanson on the Badger entered Lituya Bay about 9:00 p.m., first going in as far as Cenotaph Island and then returning to Anchorage Cove on the north shore near the entrance, to anchor in about 4 fathoms of water. Mr. Swanson was wakened by violent vibration of the boat, and noted the time on the clock in the pilot house. A little more than a minute after the shaking was first felt, but probably before the end of the earthquake, Swanson looked toward the head of the bay, past the north end of Cenotaph Island and saw what he thought to be the Lituya Glacier, which had "risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. * * * It seemed to be solid, but was jumping and shaking * * * Big cakes of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water." After a little while "the glacier dropped back out of sight and there was a big wall of water going over the point" (the spur southwest of Gilbert Inlet). Swanson next noticed the wave climb up on the south shore near Mudslide Creek. As the wave passed Cenotaph Island it seemed to be about 50 feet high near the center of the bay and to slope up toward the sides. It passed the island about 2 1/2 minutes after it was first sighted, and reached the Badger about 11/2 minutes later. No lowering or other disturbance of the water around the boat was noticed before the wave arrived.

The Badger, still at anchor, was lifted up by the wave and carried across La Chaussee Spit, riding stern first just below the crest of the wave, like a surfboard. Swanson looked down on the trees growing on the spit, and believes that he was about 2 boat lengths (more than 80 feet) above their tops. The wave crest broke just outside the spit and the boat hit bottom and foundered some distance from the shore. Looking back 3 to 4 minutes after the boat hit bottom Swanson saw water pouring over the spit, carrying logs and other debris. He does not know whether this was a continuation of the wave that carried the boat over the spit or a second wave. Mr. and Mrs. Swanson abandoned their boat in a small skiff, and were picked up by another fishing boat about 2 hours later."

After the event was over, several aircraft went up to the bay to take photographs and document the destruction for future research. Here are a couple of the pictures that were taken.

Lituya Bay a few weeks after the 1958 tsunami. The areas of destroyed forest along the shorelines are clearly recognizable as the light areas rimming the bay. A fishing boat anchored in the cove at lower left was carried over the spit in the foreground; an unidentified boat under way near the entrance was sunk and the estimated 2 passengers aboard perished and a third boat, anchored near the lower right rode out the wave. Photo by D.J. Miller, United States Geological Survey.

Wave damage areas along the shorelines of Lituya Bay, viewed from the south. Photo by D.J. Miller, United States Geological Survey.

The cliff on the northeast wall of Gilbert Inlet showing the scar of the 40 million cubic yard rockslide that occurred on the day before this photo. The head of the slide was at an altitude of about 3,000 feet (914 meters), just below snowfield in upper center. The elevation of water in Lituya Bay is sea level. The front of Lituya Glacier is visible in the lower left corner. Photo by D.J. Miller, United States Geological Survey.

The information written in this article was provided by

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