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The biggest tsunami in the world was in our backyard




Anchorage, Alaska (KTUU) – Alaska is home to the largest tsunami ever recorded.

The 1,720-foot wave hit the towering banks of Lituya Bay in southeastern Alaska in 1958. Two people died in the bay and four survived.

According to the deaths, family members and friends, most, if not all of the survivors have now died.

As those who witnessed the tsunami are no longer able to tell their story, in this part of The Fault in the Facts, a loved one helps bring their family’s experience back to life with the help of the words a survivor spoke of his memories before he did. Die.

my knowledge

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Fairweather Fault near Elfin Cove on the evening of July 9, 1958, according to the USGS.

The site of the 1958 earthquake that triggered the landslide in Lituya Bay that triggered the world’s largest tsunami (Google/KTUU/Colin Lamar)

This earthquake caused a major landslide in Lituya Bay, which in turn caused a tsunami.

“Forty million cubic yards of material — more or less a cohesive mass — fell about 1,000 feet into Lituya Bay,” said Barrett Salisbury, a seismologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

He said that when the rock hit the water, it took some air with it.

“It caused a huge wave that rose on the nearby shore about 1,720 feet,” Salisbury said. “So the combination of the earthquake that caused the landslide and the water conditions there created that giant wave.”

To put the size of the massive wave into perspective, the second largest tsunami ever recorded was in Washington State in 1980. The height was about 820 feet, which is less than half the size of the Lituya Bay tsunami.

For those familiar with Anchorage, the tallest building in downtown Anchorage is the ConocoPhillips Building, which is 296 feet tall. Now imagine about six of those buildings stacked on top of each other, and that’s about how massive the tsunami was in Lituya Bay.

Gulf of Lithuania, 1958 (DJ Miller, USGS)

The bay has a unique geology. It is T-shaped and about 100 miles from the sapphire. The barges enter their waters through a narrow opening with a spit of land on both sides.

As boaters continue across the water, they pass an island in the middle of the bay, and toward the rear wall, there are two glaciers on either side of the “T” points.

Beneath those glaciers is the Fairweather Fault, a powerful crack in the ground that resulted in the Great Earthquake that sent millions of cubic yards of land from the far wall into the deep waters of Lituya Bay.

Salisbury said the escarpment that had been washed away by the 1,720-foot waves was very close to a landslide and that’s why there was such a high splash in the water. The cliff was about an eighth of a mile across from Gilbert Inlet from the landslide.

Geologist Don Miller of the USGS was one of the main geologists who researched the event. He visited the bay within hours of the devastation. The notebook he recorded that day included one agonizing line: “In Lituya Bay, the devastation is unbelievable.”

According to Salisbury, the 1958 tsunami was a very subtle event that had the greatest impact within the Gulf.

“What we do know is that that rock fell over 1,000 yards or so into the water and so, we could easily model it, almost like an asteroid event, because it was one block of rock that fell into the water, and that caused a lot of impacts,” Salisbury said. consecutive”.

the story

Among the survivors were Howard Ulrich and his 8-year-old son, Sonny Ulrich. Howard gave interviews to the BBC and National Geographic about that fatal day before his death in 2014.

“The date was July 9, 1958,” Howard Ulrich told the BBC. “We arrived at Lituya Bay around 8pm.”

Howard Ulrich’s son and Sonny’s brother, Bruce Ulrich, told the story of his loved ones to help bring their memories back to life.

“My brother was only eight,” said Bruce Ulrich.

“We went to our favorite mooring place, dropped anchor and had dinner, and at last we went about 9 a.m. to our beds,” Howard Ulrich told National Geographic.

Soon after, the big earthquake struck, about 45 miles away.

“There was a little pause. I thought it was all over, but some movement there drew my attention away from the corner of my eye, so I looked straight in there and what I noticed was a nuclear explosion,” Howard Ulrich told the BBC. A huge wave came. It just looked like a big wall of water.”

In the same interview, Sonny said his father threw a lifejacket at him – and told him to start praying.

Howard Ulrich told National Geographic of the water under his boat “just coal black and full of wood, only up and down.” “It was actually a very terrifying sight. I just thought you know, this, this is the end. No, no way you will get out of this.”

Bruce Ulrich said that his father was rushed into the wave with a boat because an anchor was hanging at the bottom of the bay.

“[I] I started pulling all of the anchor chain out and when I got to the end of the chain I thought it was going to pull the bow of the boat down, but it just cut that chain off as if it wasn’t there,” Howard Ulrich told National Geographic.

“He put the boat on top of the wave, and so did his job,” said Bruce Ulrich.

Howard Ulrich told National Geographic, “I looked down at the stern of the boat, and we were looking down at the trees, and I thought that’s where we’d end up.”

Bruce Ulrich said his father was trying to do everything in his power to keep the boat oriented towards the waves.

‘I’ve never heard or seen anything like this before.’ Howard Ulrich told the BBC. ‘I couldn’t imagine what could have caused anything.’ I kept wondering what mechanism could be causing something like this.”

Even with the power of the largest tsunami recorded in the world, Howard sailed the boat through the waters that flowed on all sides of the bay.

“Once he was sure he was safe, he would try to look for those other boats in the bay,” Bruce Ulrich said. “He had to run around all those backwash pipes that were slamming 20 or 30 feet or something into the air, and then of course there was a row of trees and logs that started forming like a big raft. And they were kind of forcing him out of the bay.”

It was later learned that one of the other boats, the Sunmore, had sunk near the entrance to the bay. She fell with Orville and Mickey Wagner on board. It was never found, according to a geological survey paper written by geologist Don Miller.

Mr. and Mrs. Bill Swanson, who were on the third and final boat — which he named the Badger — survived, according to the same paper written by Miller.

Of course my father knew them. “We were all hunters,” said Bruce Ulrich.

Three others were killed that night. They were on an island near Yakutat. No one knows for sure what happened, but according to an article published by the UAF Institute of Geophysics, Jane Walton and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Teplice were last seen on the shores of Khantak Island. It is believed that the earth has collapsed beneath it.

No one saw this happen, but minutes later, some noticed that an area that had been on land moments ago is now covered in water, according to a UAF Geophysical Institute article. Tibbles’ boat was later found submerged near where they were last seen.

While Bill Swanson narrowly escaped this deadly tsunami in Lituya Bay, the place that nearly took his life is where he will die almost four years later. His Alaskan sports obituary shows that he died of a heart attack on his boat near the entrance to Lituya Bay. According to Sit News in Ketchikan, this is the first time he’s been back in the Gulf.

Looking to the future

“The coast of Alaska is dangerous,” Salisbury said. “And if you enjoy it, which we all do, you are putting yourself at calculated risk.”

He said it was important to be prepared and know the natural warning signs of earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis. He said people should be prepared for the worst because Alaska has seen the worst before.

The 1958 tsunami was not the first time a large wave had arisen in Lituya Bay. It has happened many times before.

There are indications of four more cases stretching from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century – although the 1958 wave is the largest that scientists have found.

Eyewitness accounts and evidence from the lands around Lituya Bay indicate that there were catastrophic large waves in 1853 or 1854, and again in 1874, 1899, and 1936.

Salisbury said most of the evidence associated with earlier waves was obliterated when the 1958 tsunami swept the Gulf. You can no longer see the scars on the banks or felled trees.

The image shows different heights of trees in Lituya Bay in 1953 (USGS)

However, scientists who visited the bay before the 1958 tsunami that wiped out greenery, were able to photograph the banks of the bay where there were different heights of trees based on when and where previous waves hit the shoreline.

Salisbury said there are absolute fears that another devastating wave will come from Lituya Bay again, but other scientists say the probability of a repeat of the 1958 event is relatively low.

“Earthquakes in that part of the world will continue to happen,” Salisbury said. “The possibility of more big waves is almost inevitable.”

Salisbury said the Fairweather fault under the Lituya Bay glacier is a large slip fault that moves about 50 mm per year. That’s too fast.

“That’s a little bit faster than San Andreas, which has an average slip rate of about 33 or 34 millimeters per year,” Salisbury said. “[The Fairweather Fault] It is one of the world’s fastest coastal strike fouls.”

Salisbury said the combination of geological factors in the area, including faulting, the potential for large rainstorms to cause landslides, and deep land waters in Lituya Bay, make further tsunami chances very likely.

Any steep slope and icy terrain in Alaska and around the world can be extremely dangerous.

“Understanding that it might not be possible to stay completely out of the way, I would tell people to be aware of the natural warning signs of major earthquakes and/or landslides.”

If you’d like to learn more about tsunamis in general and how to prepare for one, see the Facts Error episode “Do Tsunamis Look Like on TV?”




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