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


Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Possibility Of Future Waves

Giant waves have occurred in Lituya Bay at least four times, and possibly five times within 105 years, or on the average, once every 21 to 26 years. Hence, based on the historical record only, the odds against one of these waves occurring on any single day spent in the bay are comfortably large (about 9,000 to 1). The writer believes that the odds may be much less than this at the present time because of a larger than average potential for slides resulting from (a) shaking and ground breakage associated with the 1958 earthquake; (b) removal of vegetation and unconsolidated deposits by the 1958 wave. Areas especially susceptible to sliding are outlined in figure 20. The rockslide on the northeast wall of Gilbert Inlet in 1958 created new unstable slopes at the head of the slide scar and along its southeast margin. Planes of weakness parallel to bedding or schistosity in the upper part of the 1958 rockslide area continue southeastward toward Cascade Glacier; Tocher, in August 1958 (oral communication) from the air noticed open fractures along some of these planes just southeast of the slide scar. In the field during the same month the writer found many open fractures above and generally parallel to steep slopes at altitudes ranging from 1,700 to 2,500 feet along the crests of the spurs southwest of Gilbert and Crillon Inlets. Destruction of vegetation by the 1958 wave will result in accelerated erosion of unconsolidated deposits by running water for some time to come, and therefore in further undermining of steep and unstable slopes.

Figure 20. Map of head of Lituya Bay, showing open fractures and areas believed to be especially susceptible to sliding.

Further movement along the Fairweather fault, particularly of the magnitude of the 1958 movement, could cause new slides from steep slopes around the head of Lituya Bay. Slides could also be started by freezing and thawing of water in the open fractures during the spring or fall, by unusually heavy rainfall, or merely by rock or soil failure without any triggering mechanism. In addition to the subaerial slides there may be at least one other mechanism, not yet identified, that has generated one or more giant waves in Lituya Bay in the past and might do so again in the future.

Whatever the odds against their occurring during any given short period of time, the giant waves probably will occur in Lituya Bay in the future; this potential danger should be known to those who enter the bay. Steady increase in the permanent and transient population of Alaska, as well as the development of the Glacier Bay National Monument, under normal circumstances, would result in steadily increasing use of Lituya Bay as a harbor for small boats and landing place for amphibious aircraft and, eventually, in permanent settlement. Before the 1958 wave the U.S. National Park Service was considering Lituya Bay as a site for a ranger station, for, despite the then known hazard of the entrance and the somewhat vague history of earlier waves, the bay is advantageously located on the coastline of the Glacier Bay National Monument and affords the only protected anchorage for many miles in either direction along the coast (Mitchell, L. J., written communication, Mar. 13, 1959). The giant waves thus have increased the difficulty of providing safe access to this part of the National Monument, but at the same time they have greatly enhanced the interest in the bay and its value for recreational and scientific purposes.

Summary And Conclusions

A rockslide triggered either by movement on the Fairweather fault or the accompanying shaking, on July 9, 1958 plunged into Gilbert Inlet, causing water to surge over the opposite wall of the inlet to an altitude of about 1,740 feet and generating a gravity wave that moved out from the head of Lituya Bay at a speed of about 100 miles per hour. Field investigation indicates that this surge and the giant water wave were primarily responsible for the nearly total destruction of the forest up to a sharp trimline that has a maximum altitude of about 1,720 feet opposite the rockslide and extends along the shores of the bay to the mouth. This conclusion is supported by R. L. Wiegel's study of a model of Lituya Bay and his calculations from existing theory and data on wave hydraulics.

The giant waves that rose to a maximum height of 490 feet in Lituya Bay on October 27, 1936 were generated in Crillon Inlet by some disturbance other than the previously reported flood of water from an icedammed lake in the basin of North Crillon Glacier. The waves of 1936 were not associated with an earthquake, and evidence is lacking that a large subaerial slide into Crillon Inlet caused them. Among other possible causes, movement of a tidal glacier front or submarine sliding seem the most plausible, but none are conclusively supported by the information at hand. Further study of a hydraulic model of Lituya Bay will probably be the most fruitful method of solving the problem of the origin of the 1936 waves. However, the necessary clue or clues may be found in contemporary photographs or observations not available in the present investigation, or in the literature on similar waves elsewhere.

Unsubstantiated oral accounts, and a possible trimline shown on photographs taken in 1916 and later, suggest that a wave 200 feet high may have been generated by a disturbance in Crillon Inlet at the time of one of the great earthquakes in 1899.

A trimline having a maximum altitude of about 80 feet on the north shore of Lituya Bay, shown clearly in photographs taken in 1894, records a giant wave that occurred after 1854 and is tentatively dated about 1874. The configuration of the trimline, as partly reconstructed from photographs, suggests sliding in the vicinity of Mudslide Creek as the cause of this wave.

A trimline having a maximum height of 395 feet on the north shore records the earliest known giant wave in Lituya Bay. Based on a tree-ring count, this wave occurred in late 1853 or early 1854. Configuration of the trimline suggests sliding in the vicinity of Mudslide Creek as the cause. No major earthquakes are known to have occurred in southern Alaska during 1853 or 1854.

The fact that giant waves have occurred more frequently in Lituya Bay than in other seemingly similar bays may be due to the following factors in combination : (a) Presence of an active fault under water at the head of the bay; (b) presence of recently glaciated, steep slopes on highly fractured and sheared rocks along the fault zone; (c) presence of deep water immediately below the steep slopes in and near the fault zone; (d) heavy rainfall and frequent freezing and thawing. The glaciers discharging into the head of the bay along the fault zone may also contribute to generation of the waves, but little direct evidence is available now to support this.

The potential for generation of localized but enormously destructive waves by the falling or sliding of solid masses into water deserves wider recognition by geologists, by engineers concerned with the planning of dams and reservoirs, and by anyone concerned with the safety or permanency of structures or equipment near the water level in lakes or bays that adjoin steep slopes. Many of the fiordlike inland waterways of southeastern Alaska, for example, have the necessary topographic and hydrographic requirements and seemingly are susceptible to the occurrence of localized waves comparable in magnitude to those in Lituya Bay, although much less frequently than in Lituya Bay.

The 1958 giant wave in Lituya Bay affords geologists and biologists an example of catastrophic destruction of plant and animal life, and also an opportunity to study the rate and nature of reestablishment of marine life in the intertidal and nearshore zones, and of plant life in the recently denuded zone above the shoreline.

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