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The 1,740-foot high Lituya Bay tsunami of 1958 is the largest wave ever

PortandTerminal.com, February 2, 2020

“Lituya Bay is a paradise always poised on the edge of violence,”

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – On July 9, 1958, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake sent 40 million cubic yards of dirt and glacier from a mountainside at the head of Lituya Bay on the southern coast of Alaska tumbling into the bay.

When the debris hit the water, it created a massive 1,740-foot wave, the largest ever recorded in history. The image below shows the size of the wave relative to the skyline of New York City. As you can see, the wave was only slightly smaller in height than One World Trade Center, the tallest building in America measuring 1,780 feet.

The size of the Lituya Bay wave relative to the skyline of New York City.
The size of the Lituya Bay wave relative to the skyline of New York City.

Lituya Bay, Alaska: Perfectly designed for monster waves

Lituya Bay, Alaska
Lituya Bay, Alaska

The unusual geology of Lituya Bay has lent itself to massive waves in the past 150 years and certainly others before recorded history as well. The local native tribe, the Tlingit, have in their oral tradition accounts of several “giant” waves and mass drownings in the bay.

As geologists who have studied Lituya Bay discovered, it is perfectly and uniquely designed to pump out towering waves. On its three enclosing sides, steep unstable slopes and sprawling glaciers sheared straight up from sea level to seven thousand feet, loaded with rock and ice payloads that – with minimal encouragement – would go crashing down into the water, creating dramatic, localized tsunamis. Imagine paving stones being dropped into a bathtub by someone standing on a ladder. (Source: Susan Casey, The Wave)

Lituya Bay as it turns out not only has a unique geography that lends itself to big waves, it’s located near an earthquake fault line seemingly there to light the fuse of the risk that it poses. “Lituya Bay is a paradise always poised on the edge of violence,” one historian wrote.

Previous monster waves at Lituya Bay include an 1853-54 wave which was estimated at 395 feet, an 1874 wave at 80 feet, one in 1899 that measured 200 feet, and another in 1936 at 490 feet.

Surfer on a 100-foot wave in Nazare, Portugal
Surfer on a 100-foot wave in Nazare, Portugal

It is almost impossible to put the size of waves this large into perspective. The image below shows what a wave “just” 80-feet high would look like compared to a six-foot-tall human. Now try to imagine a wave over 20 times the height of the one below and you get some sort of idea of what a wave 1,740 feet high would look like to someone unlucky enough to be in its path.

Infographic showing the size of an 80-foot wave relative to a 6-foot tall human

While it seems impossible that anyone could survive a direct encounter with a wave that large, 4 people in two different boats did during the tsunami of 1958. Two others in a third boat weren’t so lucky.

Surviving the largest wave ever

Howard Ulrich, who had been out fishing with his son on the Edrie when they pulled into Lituya Bay for the night
Howard Ulrich, who had been out fishing with his son on the Edrie when they pulled into Lituya Bay for the night

On the night of July 9, 1958, three small fishing boats had anchored for the night in Lituya Bay, one of the only secure place for boats to anchor for more than 100 miles of the Gulf of the Alaska coast. Lituya Bay is also the closest place to anchor near the Fairweather fishing grounds which is where they had been fishing.

Everyone on all three of the boats knew each other, were friends accustomed to fishing in the area and looked out for each other while at sea. You need someone to have your back if you’re fishing in Alaska.

At 10:17 pm in the Alaskan summer evening light, Howard Ulrich, the captain of one of the three boats, looked in stunned amazement at “a gigantic wall of water eighteen hundred feet high” engulf the northwestern edge of the bay.

He desperately threw a lifejacket on his 7-year-old son, opened the throttle on his 40-foot boat, The Edrie, and headed straight at the wave. “All hell has broken loose in here! Think we’ve had it… Good-bye,” he radioed. The terrified father didn’t know it at the time, but the biggest tsunami ever recorded was coming his way.

When Ulrich and his young son came out on the other side of the wave he was able to send a radio message once again. They had made it, but the bay was a mess of ice, tree-trunks, dead animals and other wreckage. “I don’t know if I can make it out” he radioed, “..but I can’t stay here… The trees are closing in on me, all around me!”

Bill and Viv Swanson, friends of Ulrich on another of the three fishing boats also survived, but just barely. The couple was able to scramble aboard an eight-foot dinghy when their fishing boat started to sink. The wave spit them out into the ocean. They were found two hours later drifting in the dark, in shock and suffering from hypothermia but alive.

The couple on the third fishing boat, the Wagners, who had tried to outrun the wave, were never found.

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