Alaska Science Forum

January 18, 2012

The giant waves of Lituya Bay

Article #2097

The largest splash wave ever recorded, in Southeast Alaska’s Lituya Bay, sheared a slope of trees and topsoil to a height of 1,740 feet above sea level.

Photo by Don Miller, U.S. Geological Survey.

One of the prettiest places in Southeast Alaska has felt some of nature’s most violent behavior.


Lituya Bay, on the Pacific coast about 100 miles southeast of Yakutat and 40 miles west of Glacier Bay, is the site of the largest splash wave ever recorded. In 1958, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake triggered a tremendous landslide into the ocean. The wave that followed reached 1,740 feet above sea level on a hill opposite the slide. The slide also triggered a wave more than 100 feet high that raced down the bay.


Neil Davis, a Fairbanks author, geophysicist, and emeritus professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, flew over Lituya Bay in a Super Cub two days after the earthquake.


“When I got there, it was a truly amazing sight,” Davis said. “The bay was filled with icebergs and trees, and there was a tongue of trees and ice going out to sea outside the bay.”


Seven miles long, two miles wide, and shaped like a T, Lituya Bay is the only refuge for boats along a 100-mile stretch of the Southeast coast. The bay, carved by a glacier and nestled within the snow-covered Fairweather Range, impressed French explorer J. F. La Perouse so that he named it “Port of France” in 1798.


La Perouse soon witnessed the dark side of this beautiful place. The extreme tidal current at the narrow mouth of the bay killed 21 of
his men as they explored in small boats. The current at the bay entrance reaches about 14 miles per hour, twice as fast as the Yukon River at Eagle. After a futile search for bodies, La Perouse named the only island within the
bay Cenotaph, meaning “empty tomb.”


The shallow entrance to the bay was the most predictable hazard at Lituya Bay, but the absence of Native vil