In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.
There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a "trimline" like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.
Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of "cataclysmic floods" and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.
The location of Lituya Bay
If one likens the shape of Alaska to a bearded human face in profile, Lituya Bay is somewhere near the Adam's apple. It is a long, narrow, T-shaped, glacier-carved notch about eight miles long and two miles wide (13km by 3km), bordered on its west end by the Fairweather mountain range. It is unusually deep, and a small island lies near the very center. From a distance, the bay appears to have a wide mouth, but a narrow strip of land called "La Chaussee Spit" drapes across most of the opening, leaving the actual inlet only 1,600 feet (490 meters) wide.
The bay was first discovered by Europeans in 1786, by the sailors of French vessels named the Boussole and the Astrolabe. Commodore Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse commanded a stable of astronomers, mathematicians, geologists, botanists, physicists, naturalists, mineralogists, and illustrators on a scientific expedition to the lesser-known limbs of the world to fortify France's body of worldly knowledge. The ships were following in the figurative footsteps of famed explorer James Cook, to clarify and complement his earlier discoveries in the Pacific Ocean. The bay must have left an impression on Lapérouse, because in a dispatch sent back to Europe he named it for his homeland—Port des Français: the Port of France.
Lapérouse deployed men in small boats to explore the bay, and they encountered a treacherous peculiarity as they approached the bay inlet. The pinched, shallow channel amplified the tidal current severely, and the boats were upturned by the unexpected force. About twenty men disappeared into the water, their bodies never found. Subsequently Lapérouse christened the bay's solitary island Cenotaph—a word referring to an empty tomb or monument.
Lapérouse and his expedition left Alaska to continue their exploration of the Pacific, sending dispatches back to France describing their findings. But after departing from Australia's Botany Bay in March 1788, no member of the expedition was ever heard from again, despite an earnest search and rescue campaign sent from France. In the subsequent decades there were rumors that a pair of ships had been dashed upon the shallow coral reefs around the island of Vanikoro, but it would be almost two centuries before wreckage of Lapérouse's ship the Boussole was found there to confirm it.
Lapérouse's name "Port of France" didn't stick, despite his mysterious, heroic disappearance. By the 1930s, the remote Alaskan bay was known as Lituya, a word meaning "no lake within" in the native tongue of the local Tlingit tribe. The Tlingit people had a legend about Lituya Bay, one describing a monster who lived near the entrance of the bay, provoking enormous waves by grasping the water and shaking it like a sheet. Metaphorical monster notwithstanding, Lituya Bay became a common stop for fishing boats, as it was the only refuge from nature to be found for a hundred miles. As long as sailors were aware of the strong tidal current near the inlet, there was little known cause for concern.
Aerial photo of Lituya Bay, 1954
Although the cause of the recurring destructive disturbances in the bay was a mystery, a few people had witnessed the effects. In the early morning of 27 October 1936, Nick Larsen and F. H. Frederickson were at anchor in Lituya Bay on their trawler The Mine, having spent the night there. At around 6:20am local time, the men reported hearing a loud, continuous roar begin to emanate from the inland end of the long, narrow bay. They squinted toward the source of the sound, but it was still dark out. This confusing cacophony continued for around thirty minutes before the men sighted the cause of the great white noise: a wave about fifty feet high on a collision course with their vessel. It was strange for a large wave to be coming from the direction of land rather than the open ocean, but the men had no time to contemplate such details. Without further ado they pulled anchor and started the engine. The fishing boat lacked the speed to escape the bay before the wave arrived, but they thought they might be able to take cover behind Cenotaph Island.
As Larsen and Frederickson reached the west side of the island, putting it between themselves and the approaching wave, they found another boat anchored there. The neighboring boat belonged to James Huscroft and B. V. Allen, who were both asleep in a small cabin up the shore. As the wave arrived, the men in the cabin were awakened by a roar that one of them later likened to "the drone of 100 airplanes at low altitude." When they looked outside, they were surprised to see the ocean at their doorstep, and rising fast. Huscroft and Allen hustled to higher ground, and watched as three consecutive waves slowly swept from the inland end of the bay out to the ocean, about two minutes apart, each larger than the last. The cabin was drenched, but still standing. Down at the shore, the hull of their anchored boat clanged against the rocky floor of the bay behind the passing waves.
No humans were injured in the apparent tsunami, but a few small structures were crushed and countless trees were uprooted. Later inspection would find that the water had sloshed as high as 490 feet (150 meters) up the shore. Once the water settled, Frederickson maneuvered his trawler through the floating tree debris to the inland end of Lituya Bay, but he found no evidence of any massive event that might have triggered such a series of waves.
When petroleum scientist Don Miller arrived at the remote Alaskan bay 16 years later and observed the trimline from the 1936 waves, it aroused his geologic curiosity. The 1936 event had been locally newsworthy, therefore long-time residents of nearby towns were readily able to retell the tale. Other geologists had concluded that the waves were probably caused by a large mass of water suddenly dumped into the bay when an ice-dammed lake broke free, but Miller found that the local topology didn't support this explanation—unless there happened to be a concealed chamber under a nearby glacier. He investigated some other possibilities, such as rock falls, underwater rock slides, glacier movement, and earthquakes, but he could not find conclusive evidence for any.
Fishing vessels on Lituya Bay
On the evening of 09 July 1958—six years after Don Miller's initial visit to the region—Lituya Bay was serving its typical role as a refuge for trawlers. Earlier in the afternoon, the bay had been relatively bustling, with a large group of climbers camping on the shore, but they had departed suddenly due to their pilot having worries about fog. By 9:30pm the sole occupants of the bay were three forty-or-so-foot-long fishing vessels bobbing quietly in separate nooks near the bay entrance. One of the trawlers was the Badger, occupied by Bill and Vivian Swanson, anchored about two miles from Cenotaph Island. At that northerly latitude at that time of year, the sun was just beginning to set despite the late hour. Consequently, when the silence was shattered by a squawking pandemonium, the Swansons were able to see its cause: the thousands of gulls that nested on the steep slopes of Cenotaph Island had all noisily taken to the air to exit the bay. This was not typical bird behavior. After a few minutes, the stillness returned. The Swansons, slightly troubled, decided to turn in for the night.
About 45 minutes after the rapid unscheduled avian migration, at 10:16pm, a deep rumbling shook earth, and the water of Lituya Bay began to splash and seesaw. The nearby Fairweather Fault was slipping. This was the biggest earthquake the area had seen in fifty years, approximately magnitude 8.
Bill Swanson's bunk tilted, dumping him onto the deck. When he looked outside, the water around his boat was in a state of severe agitation. In the distance he could see the towering mountains that stood at the inland end of the bay, their peaks shaking. He also thought he saw the distant Lituya Glacier tossed up into the air. "I know you can't ordinarily see that glacier from where I was anchored," he later told Alaska Sportsman magazine. "People shake their head when I tell them I saw it that night. I can't help it if they don't believe me but I know what I saw that night."
Across the bay, father and son Howard and Sonny Ulrich were asleep in the trawler Edrie when they were shaken awake. Ulrich said later he was only able to stare, transfixed, as the rocky mountainscape chattered, clouds of dust rising and mountainsides sloughing.
Husband and wife Orville and Mickey Wagner were in the third fishing vessel at anchor that night, the Sunmore. Unlike the others, amid the shaking, they immediately started the engine, pulled anchor, and steamed for the bay's narrow exit.
The earth shook for anywhere from one to four minutes—eyewitness reports varied. When the fault finally came to rest, the foamy water of Lituya Bay settled back into something resembling its ordinary lazy waves, and a new quiet blanketed the bay. Despite the cessation of shaking, Orville and Mickey Wagner on the Sunmore—the boat headed for the bay exit—continued their retreat toward the open ocean.
After a minute or so of apparent calm, a crash described as "deafening" rattled the atmosphere. One of the unnamed mountain peaks that stood at the inland end of Lituya Bay had broken off, dropping ninety million tons of rock into the water with the force equivalent to a meteor strike. The resulting impact shook loose other rocks on the slopes, and chunks of adjacent glaciers, and these plunged into the water practically all at once. Millions of cubic yards of displaced water heaved upward and formed a wave traveling outward at about 110 miles per hour (180 km/h).
Within about a minute, the approaching wave became visible to the boats still at anchor, and the occupants looked on in awe as the wide skyscraper of water traversed the length of the bay towards them. When it reached Cenotaph Island another minute or so later, the proportions of the wave became clear. The center of the wave was almost as high as the highest point on the island, 300 feet in the air. On the two opposite shores, the plowing saltwater reached over 1,700 feet (over 500 meters) onto land, twisting even the most massive trees from their roots and scraping the bedrock nearly clean.
Broken trees scattered on shore after the wave passed. Photo by Don Miller.
On the other boat still at anchor—the Edrie—the sight of the massive, debris-filled wave bearing down on his position snapped Howard Ulrich out of his astonished daze. "I began to move then," he would report in a later interview. "And I moved fast, cursing myself for not moving sooner." He lashed a life vest around his eight-year-old son and started the engine. Ulrich attempted to raise the anchor, but it wouldn't budge. Evidently during the shaking the rocks on the floor of the bay had shifted, jamming his anchor in place. Having no better option, he reversed the anchor chain feed and dumped his forty fathoms of slack into the water, then turned his boat toward the wave.
The wall of water lifted the bow of the Edrie almost straight up into the air. The anchor chain snapped. Ulrich snatched up the radiophone and shouted into it, "Mayday! Mayday! This is the Edrie in in Lituya Bay. All hell has broken loose in here. I think we've had it. Goodbye." The wave carried the Edrie and her crew of two up the shore as the water beneath them ripped trees and vegetation from the soil. It then dragged them back again toward the center of the bay. After considerable spinning and lurching, the boat ended up upright and relatively undamaged in the sloshing wake of the wave, amid thousands of bobbing, uprooted spruce and hemlock trees. The Edrie's occupants were shaken but uninjured.
Back on the Badger, Bill and Vivian Swanson watched the fleeing Sunmore as the wave overtook it from behind. The wave appeared to swallow the Sunmore whole. Moments later the wave reached the Swansons on the Badger. It hefted the boat into the air, tossing it in the direction of La Chaussee Spit, the strip of land that stretched across most of the opening of Lituya Bay. "We went way over the trees and I looked down on rocks as big as an ordinary house as we crossed the spit," Bill Swanson told the Alaska Sportsman in a later interview. "We were way up above them. It felt like we were in a tin can and somebody was shaking it."
An errant tree smashed the Badger's pilot house, breaking several of Bill Swanson's ribs. The wave carried the Badger all the way over the spit and plopped the vessel stern-first just offshore in the open ocean. The boat hit bottom, bobbed back to the surface, and promptly began to sink again as it took on water. Bill and Vivian were rattled and bruised, but mostly intact. In the darkness, husband and wife deployed a small skiff they had on board, and abandoned ship.
The water of Lituya Bay sloshed back and forth for another thirty minutes, surging from shore to shore as the remaining energy dissipated. A layer of bobbing logs, chunks of ice, mud, and other detritus covered much of the bay and stuck out into the ocean like a tongue. Ships that had been in the area outside the bay arrived to help hunt for survivors in the debris as the sun set behind the Fairweather mountains. Around midnight one of the search vessels located Bill and Vivian Swanson huddled in their skiff in their skivvies.
Some of Don Miller's photos cataloging the destruction.
Don Miller—the petroleum geologist who had been interested in the odd trimlines six years prior—returned to Lituya Bay shortly after the 09 July earthquake, taking photos of the damage from the ground and the air, and cataloging possible causes. Evidence of heavy water damage reached 1,720 feet (520 meters) up the shore, the earth stripped down to the bedrock for much of this area. For reference, if One World Trade Center were submerged in 1,720 feet of water, only the tip of its spire would remain above the waterline. The trees that still clung at the edges of the trimlines were heavily damaged, with most of their bark stripped away. Trees as large as four feet in diameter had been bent and snapped from the slopes. The wave had carved a channel through the middle of Cenotaph Island, and La Chaussee Spit was scrubbed down to the rock. This wave had reached over three times farther up shore than the previous large waves in the bay, and therefore had obliterated all evidence of the prior events. Miller's detailed report on the event essentially concluded that the long, deep, narrow bay constituted a "hydraulic oddity" predisposed to enormous waves, and that ninety million tons of rock falling suddenly into it made for a quite compelling demonstration of Archimedes' principle.
All told, five people were killed by the earthquake and subsequent wave in Lituya Bay. Two of the deaths were the Wagners, who had tried to flee Lituya Bay aboard the Sunmore; they were never seen again. The other three deaths occurred eighty miles north, on a beach on Khantaak Island. When the Fairweather fault moved, the beach rapidly subsided under the ocean, and the three people there disappeared into the waves. The cabin on Cenotaph Island was completely swept away, a lighthouse was destroyed, and numerous other structures damaged, but the remoteness of the area prevented a greater human catastrophe.
At 1,720 feet up the shore—about a third of a mile—the 1958 Lituya Bay event was several times higher than the previously recorded maximum height of a tsunami breaking on an ocean shore. Because this tsunami was an order of magnitude larger than typical tsunamis, and because it was caused by displacement of earth and ice rather than an earthquake, a new term was coined to differentiate it: megatsunami.
Similar rockslide-related surges have been observed in a handful of other places in the modern world, some of them much more deadly. In 1883, when Krakatoa erupted, geologists believe that the resulting tsunami was caused when a dense mass of hot ash, lava, and gases—a phenomenon known as pyroclastic flow—displaced the water in the Sunda Strait. Waves as high as 138 feet (42 meters) reached the west coast of Java. And five years after the Lituya Bay megatsunami, in 1963, there was a landslide upstream of Vajont Dam in Italy, producing an 820 foot high (250 meter) surge. It was only half as high as the Lituya Bay surge, but when it overtopped the dam it inundated five villages, killing almost 2,000 people. Geologists have also identified multiple potential future megatsunami sites where unstable rock rests above deep bodies of water—on the slopes of volcanoes in Hawaii and the Canary Islands, and on craggy rock faces in British Columbia and Cape Verde Islands. It's impossible to know when, if ever, these rockfalls will occur, and if they do, exactly how catastrophic the resulting waves would be. But they are cause for concern.
Lituya Bay days after the 1958 megatsunami. In this image, a trawler near the bay inlet would be no larger than a pixel.
The 1958 Lituya Bay megatsunami remains the highest such wave in recorded history. As of 2016, no subsequent megatsunamis have been observed in that location. But evidence for multiple prior events in Lituya Bay suggests that giant waves occur there every 30-40 years on average, so the 1958 event is quite unlikely to be the last. The area remains sparsely populated, but trawlers and adventurers pass through frequently. Anyone planning a visit to this remote hydraulic oddity ought to consider: if the gulls of Cenotaph take suddenly to the air, or a roar akin to 100 airplanes rises in the distance, you might be in for a harrowing spectacle few humans have lived to see.