Fuelling the Modern Man

The story of the man who accidentally rode the tallest ever tsunami

It was the largest ever recorded — and Howard Ulrich beat it.

Josh Butler
Published 22nd November 2016
35
SHARES

In 1958, Lituya Bay in Alaska bore witness to the largest tsunami ever recorded. At 98 feet tall, it exceeds the tsunami that hit India in 2004 and the one that triggered the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in 2011.

It was caused when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault precipitated a rockslide that displaced 90 million tonnes of debris from a height of 300 feet into the narrow inlet known as Lituya Bay.

The impact of the rockslide was heard up to 50 miles away, while the displacement of water resulted in an initial mega-tsunami that destroyed vegetation a staggering 1,722 ft above the water of the bay.

lituya-bay-map

The rockslide was triggered just off Gilbert Inlet.

The resulting wave that swept down the bay stretched from shore to shore and was reported by several eyewitnesses to measure 30 m (98 ft) tall.

One of those witnesses was one Howard G Ulrich who, rather than spying the enormous wave from the safety of the shore, was on his boat at the time with his seven-year-old son, Sonny.

They’d entered the bay at around 8:00pm and anchored in a small cove before heading to sleep. They were awakened by the violent rocking of the boat, caused by the quake’s initial tremors, at which point Ulrich headed above-deck and witnessed the avalanche in full.

rockfall

The mountainside which plunged into the bay.

Seeing the colossal wall of water hurtling towards him, he estimated he had only a few minutes before it reached his position. Frantically, he attempted to haul anchor, only to find it refused to budge.

Instead, he let the chain out to a depth of forty fathoms and started the engine. By this point, the wave was breaking around Cenotaph Island. On the north side, it rose to a height allegedly exceeding 100 ft, while on the south side it had a smoother crest, appearing to be 75 ft in height.

It was at this point that the wave hit Ulrich and the chain anchoring his boat was severed with the force. His boat rode the towering crest, a full 75 ft above water level, before making its way down the trailing slope.

lituya-bay

The wave stretched from shore to shore at 98 ft tall.

But even in its wake, Ulrich’s boat was accosted by waves 20 ft high and it took a full 30 minutes before the surface of the bay became calm once more.

It served as a lucky escape for the pair, who managed to survive the ordeal unharmed, but this isn’t the first time Lituya Bay has been rocked by a tsunami of this magnitude.

nsonnyandhowardulrichalaska

Over the past 150 years, four mega-tsunamis have been recorded in this narrow inlet which lies so close to the Fairweather Fault line, with the 1958 event being the only to have had surviving eye witnesses.