History Timeline 1950's

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U.S. Timeline - The 1950s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1958

    July 9, 1958 - The Lituya Bay, Alaska earthquake registers 7.7 on the Richter scale, producing a landslide that caused a megatsunami with a 520 meter high wave. Only five people were killed in the incident, due to the desolate nature of the area involved. The wave dissipated when reaching the open sea.

    Aerial photo of Lituya Bay after 1958 tsunami

    The Fairweather Fault in Southeast Alaska shook for several minutes at 10:15 p.m., followed by a boom heard fifty miles away, which uplifted the glacier earth, and caused subsidence, all at a Richter level of 7.7. It was fortunate that the area of Gilbert Inlet and Lituya Bay is lightly populated, because the tsunami that followed created a wave 1,720 feet high, which slammed into the coastline. What had caused the mega-tsunami itself? A piece of rock split from the face of the northern wall of Gilbert Inlet. It was two thousand four hundred feet by three thousand feet, and fell two thousand feet down into the bay, measuring ninety million tons of rock. The tidal wave was the largest tsunami ever recorded in history.

    It would take three weeks before it was safe to go back to the area to study what had happened. One scientist stated that there had actually been three tsunamis at this location, but that this largest one had wiped out any evidence of the others.

    For thousands of feet inland, the ground was littered with stumps of trees or veritably nothing. The strength of the tsunami was staggering; on Khantaak Island at Yakutat Bay, three people died when the beach sank one hundred feet in seconds, falling one hundred feet below sea level. The lighthouse at the end of the bay was gone. The forest surrounding the bay was deforested in general seven hundred feet from shore; one ridge opposite the slide had the impact reach one thousand seven hundred and twenty feet. That's the height of the Empire State Building. In all, two square miles of forest were gone, taken out through Gilbert Inlet, Lituya Bay, then into the Gulf of Alaska.

    Three boats were anchored in Lituya Bay that night; one sank with two sailors aboard. These were the only five people killed in the lightly populated area. The stories of the others are remarkable.

    Survivors of the Tsunami

    Each of the other two boats anchored in Lituya Bay that night had two people aboard. One boat sank trying to ride out the wave, although its two passengers, Bill and Vivian Swanson, managed to hang onto a dinghy after their boat had been thrown twenty-five feet in the air, and were fine when rescued two hours later. The other boat, with Howard G. Ulrich and his seven year old son aboard, rode the wave and piloted themselves out of harm through the swirling water filled with millions of trees stripped from the soil.

    "With the first jolt, I tumbled out of the bunk and looked toward the head of the bay where all the noise was coming from. The mountains were shaking something awful, with slide of rock and snow, but what I noticed mostly was the glacier, the north glacier, the one they call Lituya Glacier.

    I know you can't ordinarily see that glacier from where I was anchored. People shake their heads when I tell them I saw it that night. I can't help it if they don't believe me. I know the glacier is hidden by the point when you're in Anchorage Cove, but I know what I saw that night, too.

    The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. I don't mean it was just hanging in the air. It seems to be solid, but it was jumping and shaking like crazy. Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. That was six miles away and they still looked like big chunks. They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck. That went on for a little while - it's hard to tell just how long - and then suddenly the glacier dropped back out of sight and there was a big wall of water going over the point. The wave started for us right after that and I was too busy to tell what else was happening up there," Bill and Vivian Swanson, 1958.

    "The wave definitely started in Gilbert Inlet, just before the end of the quake. It was not a wave at first. It was like an explosion, or a glacier sluff. The wave came out of the lower part, and looked like the smallest part of the whole thing. The wave did not go up 1,800 feet, the water splashed there," Howard G. Ulrich, 1958.

    So, there might be a difference of actual opinion and fact. Nobody knows for certain. But after their escape and subsequent rescues, the wave rode through Gilbert Inlet, then Lituya Bay, and dissipated as it rolled out to sea.

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    History of Lituya Bay

    Lituya Bay is seven miles long and up to two miles wide with an island, the La Chaussee Spit, in its center. Its shape and position on the Fairweather Fault puts it in constant danger of tidal waves and currents. Thus, this 1958 tsunami was not the first time a deadly tide caused an event of destruction in the area. French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup La Pérouse arrived in 1786 and was immediately impressed by an unusual line in the forest surrounding the fjord, indicating that the calm water also had a destructive aspect to its seemingly protected location.

    (The forest) "... had been cut cleanly with a razor blade," he noted in his log.

    That destructive aspect was quickly shown when the French explorer sent three small boats to measure the depth of the entrance to the bay. In calm weather, the tidal currents spun due to the fjords narrow shape and only thirty-three feet of depth at its entrance (unknown at the time), capsizing two of the boats; twenty-six men drowned, their bodies never found.

    In 1854, a tsumami the height of three hundred and ninety-five feet hit Lituya Bay. In 1899, a native village was destroyed by an earthquake, again triggered a tidal wave, which measured two hundred feet. Five people drowned. On October 27, 1936, another tsunami hit, four hundred and ninety feet high, with no fatalities. Above is the tale of 1958. It is estimated that a tidal wave will hit this region once per quarter century. To this day, one boat is lost at the entrance per year.

    Image above: Photo of Lituya Bay inlet three days after the Tsunami, with its deforested sides, 1958, D.J. Miller, U.S. Geological Survey. Courtesy NASA. Image below: Damage to forest at Harbor Point at head of Lituya Bay, 1958, D.J. Miller, United States Geological Survey. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source Info: Western States Seismic Policy Council; "Lituya Bay's Apocalyptic Wave," Earthobservatory.NASA.gov; "World's Tallest Tsunami," geology.com; "Giant Waves in Lituya Bay, 1960, Don J. Miller; "Modeling the 1958 Lituya Bay mega-tsunami, II," 2002, Mader, C.L.; Gittings, M.L, the International Journal of the Tsunami Society; Wikipedia Commons.

    Damage to forest at Lituya Bay 1958

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