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Archive for July 9th, 2009

When the words “Lituya Bay” are mentioned (which, to be perfectly honest, doesn’t happen all that often), I think of those Old Milwaukee beer commercials from years past.  You remember the ones?  They go something like…

Lituya Bay and Milwaukee both mean something great to these guys.  Lituya Bay means Alaska, America’s wildest frontier.  Beauty, wildlife, fishing.  And Milwaukee means beer…cold, crisp, Old Milwaukee beer…

You get the idea…and yeah,  it’s pretty stupid.

In case you didn’t know, Lituya Bay is a small natural fjord (2 miles wide by 7 miles long) along the southeast coast of Alaska…right about here.  It serves mostly as a shelter and anchoring point for small fishing boats, but its relatively dramatic tides and high current speeds at the entrance give mariners some extra action when navigating.

Typically a quiet little harbor, Lituya Bay was never in an Old Milwaukee beer commercial.  But it was the sight of one of the most dramatic events in recorded geological history.  On the evening of July 9, 1958, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake shook the Fairweather Fault, which crosses our little harbor.  Earthquakes are not uncommon, but the results of this quake certainly were.

At the back of the harbor, 40 million cubic yards of mountain broke free and collapsed into the water, creating a huge tsunami.  As the water ripped through Lituya Bay, it spread out and got smaller, but its initial height is still the highest ever seen…516 meters.  That’s 1,720 feet high…a third of a mile.  For comparison, the World Trade Center’s North Tower (including antennas) stood 1,728 feet tall.  That’s a colossal wave!

Anyways, near the mouth of the Bay sat Howard Ulrich and his 7-year-old in their small fishing boat.  Having anchored just a couple hours before, they got the shock of their lives when the earthquake struck.  Two minutes later they got a second (and bigger) shock in the sound of a deafening crash and what looked to be a massive explosion at the head of the harbor.  Three minutes after that, the wave, still nearly 100 feet high, hit their boat, carried them out over the shore, then backwashed them into the middle of the harbor.  Miraculously, both survived.

The Lituya Bay tsunami stripped away the trees, vegetation, and even the dirt in its path, leaving bare rock in its wake.  Fifty years later, the effects of the landslide can still be seen in Lituya Bay, a stark reminder to the incredible power of water.

Recommended Reading: Geology.com website – This site has a great amount of detail and great photos of the Lituya Bay tsunami.

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