Lituya Bay Tsunami- A tall tale (pretty much) true

Steve's picture

In any field of endeavor be it sports, law, medicine, or science, there are legendary places, episodes, and people that you just can’t miss reading about. In geophysics, Lituya Bay stands in this category, one almost verging on tall tale.

 Google search “Lituya Bay” and a 20,000 strong avalanche of returns crashes down. What makes Lituya Bay legendary? Not much, other than being home to a wave “higher than the Empire State Building”. This little known Alaskan fiord that lays claim to the world’s biggest tsunami garners publicity that would make Loch Ness-Nessie or Bigfoot jealous. With full respect to that duo however, more than a few grainy photos substance the claim.

Thumbnail Tale. Being bounded by steep eastern slopes and in proximity to active seismic faults, Lituya Bay has seen sizable rockslides tumble into it now and again for thousands of years.  After the slides impact with water, large waves can sweep clean soils, vegetation and trees on adjacent shores. These scourer marks, or trimlines, comprise visible testament to the event for 200 years or more.  In July 1958, an M7.9 earthquake on nearby Fairweather Fault triggered a rockslide on the east slope of Gilbert Inlet at the back of the Bay. The rockslide pushed, carried, splashed, or otherwise motivated water to that magical Empire State Building height (~500 m) on the west slope of the Inlet. Within a minute or so, the ‘mega tsunami’ shrunk in height by a factor of five. As it exited the Bay, the wave had withered to about 20 m size.

 Although hyped a bit over the years, the Lituya Bay Tsunami was indeed remarkable  --  a tall tale (pretty much) true.  I suppose that a tad of embellishment sits well with any legend. Reminds me of a line from the Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox ---  “One night it was so cold that their campfire froze.  They had to light a second fire to thaw out the first.”     

 Steven N. Ward   Santa Cruz


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