Highest Recorded Tsunami
On the night of July 9, 1958, an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle loosened about 40 million cubic yards (30.6 million cubic meters) of rock high above the northeastern shore of Lituya Bay. This mass of rock plunged from an altitude of approximately 3000 feet (914 meters) down into the waters of Gilbert Inlet (see map above). The impact generated a local tsunami that crashed against the southwest shoreline of Gilbert Inlet. The wave hit with such power that it swept completely over the spur of land that separates Gilbert Inlet from the main body of Lituya Bay. The wave then continued down the entire length of Lituya Bay, over La Chaussee Spit and into the Gulf of Alaska. The force of the wave removed all trees and vegetation from elevations as high as 1720 feet (524 meters) above sea level. Millions of trees were uprooted and swept away by the wave. This is the highest wave that has ever been known.
Lituya Bay is an ice-scoured tidal inlet on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Alaska. It is about seven miles long (11.3 kilometers) and up to two miles wide (3.2 kilometers). It has a maximum depth of about 720 feet (219 meters), but a sill of only 32 feet (9.7 meters) in depth separates it from the Gulf of Alaska between La Chaussee Spit and Harbor Point.
The Fairweather Fault trends across the northeast end of the Bay and is responsible for the T-shape of the bay. Glacial scour has exploited the weak zone along the fault to produce a long linear trough known as the Fairweather Trench. The Lituya Glacier and North Crillon Glacier have scoured portions of the Fairweather Trench in the area of Lituya Bay. Gilbert Inlet and Crillon Inlet occupy the Fairweather Trench on the northeast end of Lituya Bay.
The rockfall of July 9, 1958 occurred on steep cliffs above the northeast shore of Gilbert Inlet. It is marked on the map above in red. The rocks fell from an elevation of about 3000 feet (914 meters). The impact of 40 million cubic yards (30.6 million cubic meters) of rock hitting the water produced a local tsunami that swept the entire length of the Lituya Bay and over the La Chaussee Spit. This wave stripped all vegetation and soil from along the edges of the bay. This damaged area is shown in yellow on the map above. The numbers are elevations (in feet) of the upper edge of the wave damage area and represent the approximate elevation of the wave as it traveled through the bay. Map redrawn from data included in United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 354-C.