'Higher than the Empire State Building': what was and how the highest wave on Earth formed - ForumDaily
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'Higher than the Empire State Building': what was and how the highest wave on Earth was formed

In July 1958, a magnitude 8,3 earthquake at the Fairweather Fault shook the southern coast of Alaska, causing the highest recorded wave on Earth. LiveScience.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ground shaking triggered a massive landslide in nearby Lituya Bay, triggering a devastating tsunami that killed five people.

A colossal wave flattened the trees on the steep slopes surrounding the bay to a maximum height of 524 meters above sea level - higher than the Empire State Building in New York (which is 443 meters high).

“This is the largest wave ever recorded and witnessed,” said Herman Fritz, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in tsunamis and hurricanes. He added that there were probably larger waves in Earth's history that can be inferred from geological deposits, but are open to interpretation.

Fritz was the lead author of a study published in 2009 in the journal Pure and Applied Geophysics that recreated the tsunami in Lituya Bay using a specialized 1:675 scale laboratory tank that mimics the shape of the bay. The team found that the maximum height of the wave responsible for uprooting trees was about 150m, making it taller than any wave crest recorded on Earth.

The researchers calculated that in order for the tsunami to reach this height, the landslide that caused it must have dumped about 30 million cubic meters of rock into Lituya Bay. But while the extreme scale of the landslide provided the power to create such a massive wave, the shape of the bay is the real reason the wave was so high, Fritz said.

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Lituya Bay is a fjord - a long and narrow coastal bay with steep banks, formed by an ancient glacier. The bay is about 14,5 km long and about 3,2 km wide at its widest point. It has a maximum depth of 220 m and is connected to the Gulf of Alaska by a 300 m wide opening. The landslide that triggered the 1958 tsunami occurred in Gilbert Bay, at the end of the fjord furthest from the ocean.

During a typical tsunami caused by a landslide, the resulting wave spreads like a fan. But the narrow shape and steep slopes of Lituya Bay, as well as the place of origin, meant that all the power of the wave was directed in one direction. Since the water had nowhere else to go, Fritz said it was pushed up the surrounding slopes, which is why it had such a huge splash height.

In 2019, a study published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences created a visual wave simulation using computer models.

This type of extreme wave is known as a megatsunami, Fritz said, a term originally coined by the media that refers to extremely large waves caused by landslides or volcanic island collapses.

Tsunamis caused by landslides are much rarer than tectonic tsunamis, which are caused by disturbances in the seabed due to the movement of tectonic plates (like the 2011 tsunami in Japan) and account for more than 90% of all tsunamis, Fritz says. He added that tsunamis caused by landslides are much more short-lived than tectonic tsunamis.

“Tsunamis caused by landslides can be very large near the source, but quickly die out,” Fritz said. On the other hand, tectonic tsunamis start as small waves as little as 60cm high, travel huge distances and increase in height as they reach the coast, he noted.

During the Lituya Bay tsunami, the wave had shrunk to less than 100m by the time it reached the narrow mouth of the fjord and did not spread further into the Gulf of Alaska, Fritz said.

The 1958 tsunami was not the first in Lituya Bay. Geologists have previously found evidence of smaller tsunamis that occurred here in 1853, 1854, and 1936, but according to a Western States Seismic Policy Council (WSSPC) report, all of their evidence was swept away by much larger megatsunamis.

A handful of people managed to survive the tsunami despite being on boats in the bay when the landslide hit, according to the WSSPC, either by waiting out the wave or fleeing across the mouth of the bay. After the wave dissipated, it took three weeks before scientists deemed the site safe enough to explore, and when it was finally deemed safe, researchers saw millions of uprooted trees floating in the bay.

Other record waves

October 29, 2020 Portuguese surfer António Laureano broke the record the highest wave ever surfed, when he rode a 30,9 m high wave in Nazare, a city in western Portugal. The waves were so big they could be seen from space and were photographed by Landsat 8, a satellite operated by NASA and the USGS. This record is not officially recognized by the World Surf League (WSL) because there were no WSL officials to confirm the wave height.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, biggest wave in open water, ever recorded, measured 19 m and was discovered in the North Atlantic on February 17, 2013.

November 17, 2020 near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was recorded the strongest killer wave throughout history. A rogue wave is an unusually high wave, more than twice the height of surrounding waves that occur spontaneously in the open ocean. This wave was 17,6 m high, making it more than three times higher than the surrounding waves. The phenomenon was described by researchers as a “once in a millennium” event.

The biggest in the world tidal shaft - a phenomenon in which the tide changes the direction of the flow of the river and forms a wave or waves of water rising up the river - occurs on the Chinese Qiantang River in the eighth month of the lunar calendar, when the wave usually reaches a height of about 9 m, according to The Atlantic. However, 22 August 2013, an additional tide due to a typhoon caused the wave to reach a height of about 20 m and, according to reports, 30 spectators were injured.

You may be interested in: top New York news, stories of our immigrants and helpful tips about life in the Big Apple - read it all on ForumDaily New York.

The biggest artificial wavesever created by humans are generated by the Delta Flume wave generator in the Netherlands, which opened in 2015. This 300m long tank holds 9 million liters of water and creates waves with a maximum height of 5m.

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