Giant Waves in Lituya Bay, Alaska; USGS PP 354-C

Waves of October 27, 1936

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Waves On October 27, 1936

Setting And Sources Of Information

Four men were in Lituya Bay on October 27, 1936. James Huscroft and B. V. Allen were in a cabin on the west shore of Cenotaph Island (fig. 17) and Nick s Perroud, P. H., 1957, The solitary wave reflection along a straight vertical wall at oblique incidence: Calif. Univ., [Berkeley], Ph.D. thesis. 93 p. Larsen and F. H. Frederickson were on a 38-foot trolling boat The Mine. Larsen and Frederickson, who had entered Lituya Bay on October 26, anchored their boat first near the north shore south of Fish Lake and, after the first wave was sighted, moved to the west shore of the island near the cabin. According to the most detailed accounts, there were three giant waves in close succession, beginning at about 7:00 a.m., about an hour before sunrise. According to Frederickson the weather was clear but it was too dark to see much at the head of the bay; moreover, after The Mine was moved to the lee of Cenotaph Island, the head of the bay was hidden from all four observers. The tide at the time of the waves was flooding and about at mean tide stage (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1935).

Two nearly identical articles based on an oral report by Allen (called to the writer's attention by Robert De Armond, oral communication, July 22, 1958) were published in newspapers soon after the waves occurred (Alaska Daily Press, 1936; Alaska Weekly, 1936). Information related by Huscroft about a year later was incorporated in an article on Lituya Bay by Williams (1938). De Ariuond also recalled seeing another account in a Ketchikan newspaper, based on the oral report by Larsen and Frederickson, but attempts to find this article have failed (L. H. Bayers, written communication, Apr. 7,1959). The eyewitness account of F. H. Frederickson is abstracted from his recollections as related to the writer in a telephone conversation and a letter in September 1958.

Eyewitness Accounts

Account Of Fred H. Fredrickson

During the night of October 26-27, 1936, The Mine was anchored near the north shore of Lituya Bay, a mile due west of the cabin on Cenotaph Island (fig. 17). About 2 hours before sunrise on October 27, at about 6:20 a.m. local time, a loud, steady roar was heard. It seemed to be coming from the mountains beyond the head of the bay, but, although the weather was clear, it was too dark to see much there. No shaking was felt on the boat. The roar continued until about 6:50 a.m., at which time a large wave was first seen in the narrow part of the bay, just west of the two arms at the head. The wave at this position appeared as a steep wall of water extending from shore to shore and possibly 100 feet high. On first sighting the wave the men raised the anchor and started the boat toward the Cenotaph Island; an estimated 10 minutes later, when the first wave arrived, the boat had reached a position about 1,300 feet northwest of the cabin, in the water at least 70 feet deep. No lowering or any other unusual disturbance of the water surface was noticed up to this time.

The first wave raised The Mine about 50 feet above normal water level; out of the lee of the island, to the north and south, the wave was possibly 50 feet higher. Immediately after the passing of the first wave the water surface fell below normal level. Huscroft's seining boat, anchored nearby in 48 feet of water, touched bottom. The first wave was followed at estimated 2minute intervals by the second and third waves, each larger than the preceding one. The water surface receded below normal level after each of these waves also. Smaller waves continued for about half an hour after the third large wave passed. The direction of wave movement was always toward the mouth of the bay; there was no sloshing of the water back and forth in the bay. Floating logs and ice appeared around the boat about half an hour after the third large wave passed.

Accounts Of Bernard V. Allen And James Huscroft

The more complete of two newspaper articles based on the account of Allen (Alaska Daily Press, 1936) states that he and Huscroft were awakened at 7:00 a.m. on October 27, 1936, by a roar like "the drone of 100 airplanes at low altitude," to find the water already up to their cabin on Cenotaph Island. As seen from a higher, safer point on the island, the water is described by Allen as sweeping over the shore in 3 waves of increasing altitude, at an estimated velocity of about 20 knots (23 miles per hour). In the published account the maximum height of the waves is given at 250 feet, but in a shorter account recorded in the log book of Osa Nolde (Caroline Jensen, written communication, Dec. 23, 1958) Allen stated that the waves reached a height of from 150 to 200 feet. These accounts agree in most respects with the recollections of Fredrickson; in the log book, however, Allen described the weather in Lituya Bay on October 27, 1936, as cool, with rain, hail, thunder, and lightning.

The observations attributed to Huscroft by Williams (1938) differ from the other accounts in the following respects : Huscroft was preparing breakfast in his cabin at the time the roar was first heard; the water rushed toward the entrance in a single "mountainous tidal wave" followed by an immense "back wave," and then by waves that surged and resurged over the length of the bay a number of times. This was on a morning in the fall of 1936, during a period of unusually heavy rainfall.

Effects Of The Waves

The observations attributed to Huscroft by Williams of Lituya Bay by the 1936 waves, as shown on figure 17, was mapped from field observations made by members of U.S. Geological Survey field parties in 1952-53, from single-lens vertical photographs at a scale of about 1: 40,000, taken in 1948 by the U.S. Navy, and from an oblique aerial photograph taken in 1937 by Bradford Washburn. The upper limit of wave destruction around much of the inner part of the bay is readily seen on the 1948 vertical aerial photographs due to the difference in tone, texture, and average height of the vegetation growing above and below the trimline. Around the outer part of the bay and on some steep slopes near the head of the bay, however, field examination was required to determine the effects of the 1936 wave. At several places on steep slopes in the upper part of the bay the upper limit of wave destruction was no longer recognizable even in the field, due to the scarcity of large trees. The altitude of the trimline was measured at 14 points by means of a hand-carried altimeter, and at other points using the Kelsh plotter.

The identity of the trimline with the known 1936 wave was confirmed by tree ring counts in two ways (a) sections cut in 1953 from the largest trees among the three principal types growing below the trimline on the northwest shore near point h (fig. 17), showed the following ages: cottonwood, 17 years; alder, 15 years; spruce, 14 years; (b) a section cut from a tree just above the trimline at point h (fig. 17, pl. 8A), showed, on the side toward the bay, an injury believed to have been caused by debris carried by the waves (pl. 8B). The section showed 17 annual growth rings outside the injury. The tree-ring counts were made by R. M. Godman of the Alaska Forest Research Center R. F. Taylor, written communications, Oct. 26 and Nov. 20, 1953). The second method (see page 77), was used to date the oldest known trimline in Lituya Bay. The assumption that the injuries were caused by the waves was convincingly confirmed by the many similarly damaged trees found along the trimline of the 1958 wave (pl. 6A).

Figure 17. Map of Lituya Bay showing setting and effects of 1936 giant waves.

Plate 8 A North shore of Lituya Bay between Cenotaph Island and Gilbert Inlet, showing forests of different ages in zone denuded by 1936 giant waves (shore to h), in upper part of zone denuded by giant wave about 1874 (h to j), in upper part of zone denuded by giant wave in 1853 or 1854 (j to k), in upper part of recently glaciated zone (kk to m). and above lateral moraine at m. Photograph taken in 1953

B. Section cut in 1953 front spruce tree growing just above trimline of 1936 (loc. h, in A  and in fig. 17). There are 17 growth rings outside injury on right.

The trimline of the 1936 waves has a maximum height of 490 feet or more above sea level on the northeast wall of Crillon Inlet (pl. 9A). The exact upper limit of wave destruction could not be determined by field examination in this area in 1953, due to the scanty growth of trees on the steep slope and to the possibility that the alinement of trees at the position tentatively mapped as the trimline was accidental. The position mapped in the field was later confirmed by an aerial photograph taken in 1937 by Bradford Washburn, on which the slope below the trimline is virtually bare of vegetation. Destruction of the forest extended to a maximum distance of 2,000 feet from the shoreline in the reentrant northeast of Cenotaph Island. Along a 1-mile segment midway along the bay-the same reference interval cited for the 1958 wave on page 60 the band of destruction on the north and south shores averages 50 feet in width and extends to an average altitude of 10 feet. The total area between the trimlines of the 1936 waves and the high tide shoreline is about 0.8 square mile.

Plate 9 Destruction of forest by 1936 giant waves

A. Crillon Inlet and head of Lituya Bay in 1952; trimline begins above tidal front of ; altitude 490 feet at i. Front of Cascade Glacier at left margin.

B. Destruction to an altitude of about 90 feet at head of Lituya Bay, half a mile northwest of Cascade Glacier. Photograph by Tom Smith in 1936.

Plate 10 Section Cut In 1953 From Spruce Tree Growing Just Above Trimline Of 1853-54 Giant Wave. There are 100 growth rings outside injury on right. Locality (L), on figure 19

Much of the evidence of destruction by the 1936 waves was obliterated by the wave in 1958. Short segments of the 1936 trimline still remained above the 1958 trimline from Cascade Glacier northwest about 1,500 feet and about 3,000 feet along the northeast wall of Crillon Inlet.

The total destruction of the forest up to a sharp trimline by the 1936 waves is mentioned in all of the available eyewitness accounts and is recorded in photographs taken during the latter part of 1936 by Tom Smith. One of these photographs is reproduced as plate 9B. Allen (Alaska Daily Press, 1936) reported that trees and shrubs were cleared away to a maximum altitude of 400 feet. The same article reported that within a few days uprooted trees had drifted along the beach as much as 50 miles south of Lituya Bay. Fredrickson (written communication, Sept. 1958) said that although not many trees were felled in the outer part of the bay, the water flowed for some distance out through the forest. Crabs and clams were found as much as half a mile back from the beach north of the mouth of the bay. According to Fredrickson most of the trees felled by the waves were washed out by the roots but still had roots, limbs and bark attached after the waves had passed. This difference in the damage caused by the 1936 waves, as compared to that caused by the 1958 wave is confirmed also by other eyewitness accounts and by the photographs taken by Smith.

One of the accounts attributed to Allen (Alaska Daily Press, 1936) describes the 1936 "flood" as "cutting a new bank from the soil and stone, and hurling rocks and trees." Williams (1938, p. 18), either from information furnished by Huscroft or from his own observations in 1937, states that "corrasion was complete down to bedrock, including all forest growth and even boulders 10 feet or more in diameter." This was not true in all areas below the trimline, for the photographs taken by Smith show stretches northwest of Cascade Glacier and along the north shore of the bay where many trees were left lying at or near their original positions. Even after the 1958 wave the bedrock was not exposed at many places touched by the 1936 waves. In 1952-53 scarps as much as 4 feet high were seen at a few places along the 1936 trimline; at most places, however, evidence indicated removal of not more than a thin soil layer containing the root systems of the trees. The erosive power of the 1936 waves, even at the head of the bay, was much less than that of the 1958 wave..

The 1936 waves (only the third wave according to Fredrickson and to one account by Allen) washed into Huscroft's cabin on the west shore of Cenotaph Island without causing much damage, but destroyed at least two small frame buildings nearby. Two triangulation stations established by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1926 could not be found in 1940 (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey "Lithographic List of Descriptions of Triangulation Stations, Alaska No. 57," not dated). One was on the north shore near Cenotaph Island marked by bronze disks set in boulders and one was on the south shore at Coal Creek marked by concrete blocks. Don Tocher (oral communication, Sept. 2, 1958) suggested that these markers may have been carried away or moved by the 1936 waves.


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