The 1,700-foot Tall Tsunami that Struck Alaska -Can It Happen Again Elsewhere?

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March 17, 2008

The 1,700-foot Tall Tsunami that Struck Alaska -Can It Happen Again Elsewhere?

1964_03_28_loc On the night of July 7th, 1958 the world’s largest Tsunami engorged Alaska's Lituya bay, located about 250 miles west of Juneau. It was 1,700 feet or 520 meters, almost twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.

The Tsunami was triggered by a magnitude 8.3 earthquake caused an enormous landslide along the Fairweather Fault. The resulting crash of rock into water, caused the largest wall of water in human history. The deadly wave hurtled at jet speeds and wiped out everything within a four mile radius.

Fortunately Lituya Bay was virtually uninhabited, otherwise it would have caused unprecedented destruction, far greater than the tsunami that struck Thailand in 2004.

At the time of the colossal wave, there were only three fishing boats anchored in the bay and amazingly only one sank, with two people losing their lives. The other boats were able to surf the crest of the tsunami.

The Science Channel and Dr George PC quoted one of the survivors Howard G. Ulrich in a recent article about the tsnumami. Ulrich heard the sound of the enormous wave ripping through the land and obscuring the sky, he reportedly said to his 8-year-old child “Son…it’s time to pray.”

Can a similar tsunami strike the westcoast of the U.S. again? Geological evidence makes it almost a certainty -the region is the heart of the world's most active sesmic zone: the Pacific Rim of Fire.

On January the 26th, 1700, sometime around 9 in the evening local time, the Juan de Fuca segment of the planet beneath the ocean in the Pacific Northwest moved. Suddenly. It slipped some 60 feet eastward beneath the North American plate, and caused a monster quake of approximate magnitude 9. It set in motion tsunamis that struck the coast of North America and traveled to the shores of Japan.

Researchers believe that these megaquakes occur every 400 to 500 years or so.

Kim Olsen of SDSU and his team created a supercomputer-powered “virtual earthquake” program that allowed them to recreate such an earthquake. This program encompassed the work of scientists from SDSU, San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In addition, to ensure that the entire representation of what could happen is accurate, William Stephenson of the USGS worked with Olsen and Andreas Geisselmeyer from Ulm University in Germany to create an accurate representation of the earth’s subsurface layering in that area. This “velocity model” – the first of its kind – expresses how the structure will bend, reflect, and change in size and direction.

Naturally, what they learnt didn’t necessarily send anyone home to bed with warm fuzzy feelings of safety (although Andreas is probably feeling pretty cozy over in Germany).

Their scenario depicted a rupture beginning in the north and propagating toward the south along the 600-mile long Cascadia Subduction Zone (an area where two tectonic plates move towards one another, forcing one to slide beneath the other). In their scenario, the ground moved about 1.5 feet per second in Seattle, nearly 6 inches per second in Tacoma, Olympia and Vancouver, and 3 inches in Portland, Oregon.

“We also found that these high ground velocities were accompanied by significant low-frequency shaking, like what you feel in a roller coaster, that lasted as long as five minutes – and that’s a long time,” said Olsen.

“One thing these studies will hopefully do is to raise awareness of the possibility of megathrust earthquakes happening at any given time in the Pacific Northwest,” Olsen added. “Because these events will tend to occur several hundred kilometers from major cities, the study also implies that the region could benefit from an early warning system that can allow time for protective actions before the brunt of the shaking starts.”

Region specific, this is bad news for the North West for two reasons; one, because the combined long-duration shaking and high ground velocities raise the possibility that such an earthquake could inflict major damage on downtown Seattle; and two, areas like Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia sit on top of sediment filled geological basins, thus, amplifying the waves generated by major earthquakes.

Reason one why scientists bother running these simulations. Reason number two: “The information from these simulations can also play a role in research into the hazards posed by large tsunamis, which can originate from such megathrust earthquakes like the ones generated in the 2004 Sumatra-Andeman earthquake in Indonesia,” said Olsen.

Posted by Casey Kazan with Josh Hill.

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Related Galaxy links:

Tsunami-like Waves May Trigger Next Massive Yellowstone Explosion
The World's Most Massive Supervolcano: Yellowstone

Source:

http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/offbeat-news/the-1700-feet-tsunami-that-struck-alaska/927

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