Badger’s trembling before the blast had alarmed William Swanson, made him stare through summer dusk up Lituya Bay, where the sound had originated. With his wife, he’d just visited Cenotaph Island halfway up the seven-mile-long, fish-shaped fjord indenting the Panhandle’s Lost Coast.

At 10:16 p.m., they lay anchored inside the mouth, in a cove behind La Chaussee Spit. Swanson, frozen in disbelief in the pilothouse, noticed Lituya Glacier had “risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight,” still apparently solid but “jumping and shaking.” Then a wall roaring seaward razed opposite shores two miles apart. It combed Cenotaph and, five minutes after the big bang, grabbed Badger, lifting the 40-foot troller, surfing it like a giant’s Malibu shortboard, but stern-first, across the spit. From near the crest, Swanson saw treetops two boat-lengths below.

This mega-tsunami—none had been witnessed up to that day, July 9, 1958—the tallest wave ever known, crashed thunderously beyond La Chaussee, hurling spruce missiles, breaking Badger and four of Bill’s ribs. Fellow fishermen rescued the Swansons who, in underwear, had abandoned ship in a skiff. Another couple vanished with Sunmore at the entrance, leaving only an oil slick. A third, father-and-son party aboard Edrie rode spumed mayhem that busted their anchor chain. Avalanching had announced a wave-top two road lanes wide, which passed beneath them.

Don Miller, a USGS expert on Simon Winchester’s “constant, complex, and often spectacularly violent interplay of tectonics,” already had studied the freaks that carom down Lituya, whose gutter once reminded William Dall of “Yosemite Valley…with its floor submerged.” Miller tree-ringed at least four strikes dated to the previous century. One destroyed a Tlingit village, the residents blaming a water monster. Its most recent, a 1958 tantrum, he realized from a floatplane window, had erased all earlier traces.

Black and white photo of a glacier curving between mountains and ending in a bay
View along the Fairweather fault trench at the head of Lituya Bay after the 1958 landslide and wave. Courtesy D.J. Miller, USGS

Miller, drawing on scale-size experiments, supposed domino effects from the rupture along the Fairweather fault’s Desolation Valley, which crosscuts the bay’s head. The 7.8 shudder shifted ground 21 feet sideways and three feet vertically. It released three to four million dump-truck loads of cliff, plunging them 3,000 feet into Gilbert Inlet, the fish tail’s left fin. A second, flood-boosting, submarine slide trimmed woods facing the fracture to a height exceeding the Empire State Building’s roof by 500 feet; pelagic rogues, by comparison, max out at less than 100 feet, and surfers brave 75-foot swells, tops. The pop-up deluge, twice as fast as a cheetah, shearing off six-foot-thick Sitka spruce even on the spit, stripped forest down to bedrock and etched a bathtub ring around the bay. Deadfall resembled logs pulp mill barkers had peeled. Gull corpses and silvers fouled up raw shorelines.

The wounds, scabbed with younger vegetation, remain evident. 

Surges the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake spread six years later claimed far more property and human lives. When hell’s gates unhinged, a 30-foot beast snapping pilings like toothpicks crushed Kodiak Main Street shops. Backflow sucked cannery docks out to sea. A truck 10 yards above tide level twisted around a Seward tree trunk. Whittier and Valdez were hit equally hard. Chenega, never rebuilt, lost 26 villagers to the wet reaper, over a third of its population.

Fishing vessel rests atop downed trees amid other debris in this black and white image
Waves from the 1964 Good Friday quake beached a fishing boat several hundred feet inland from the head of Resurrection Bay. Courtesy R.W. Lemke, USGS

Nowadays, a stylized Hokusei breaker dwarfs Pictogram Man scrambling uphill on blue-and-white signs throughout Panhandle and Gulf of Alaska towns, warning of lethal hazards, pointing toward escape routes. 

Tsunamis used to be random hiccups of Nature, a force majeure. Lately, some bear humanity’s fingerprints. Glacier Bay has birthed landslides, always preceded by rockfalls, during the past three decades’ warmest years. Thawing soils are to blame. Barry Arm, an appendix of Prince William Sound’s glacier-rimmed Harriman Fjord, currently worries scientists. One 40-degree slope at this cruise and sea-kayaking destination sped up its creep in the past decade. A slide floating 16 times more debris than Lituya’s, possible within a year, likely within 20, would batter Whittier with a 30-footer. Glaciers retreating in steep terrain bare weakened overburdens rain and melt-water freshets further sap, priming scarps to heed gravity’s call—cataclysmically. 

In Barry Arm’s peace, amid kittiwakes keening and pressurized bubbles popping in dissolving bergs, a bomb is ticking.

Narrow bay, mountains, and several glaciers visible in this aerial photograph. The wing and strut of a small plane visible on edge of the photo.
Barry Glacier and Cascade Glacier in Prince William Sound’s Barry Arm of Harriman Fjord—the site of a likely future landslide and impact wave. Courtesy Christian Zimmerman, USGS

Like that trapped fossil air, glacial lakes and fjords bloat in the wake of heating, this one global, human-caused, increasing the odds and scope of disasters echoing 1963’s at Vaiont Reservoir, where a 300-foot impact wave overwhelming the dam in mere minutes killed 2,000 North Italians. Ten of the last century’s hugest waves were loosed in glaciered alpine places, many in coastal Alaska. Hopefully, satellite radar and aerial photos of volatile spots—and sirens wailing in towns—will give enough warning.

A belated victim of the element he’d investigated, Miller and a young assistant in 1961 drowned rafting the Kiagna, a Chitina tributary. His Lituya report, including the four survivors’ stories, is the scariest geology paper you’ll ever read. 


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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