Largest Wave Ever Recorded: The Deadly 1,720-Foot Wave

The largest wave ever recorded by humans measured 1,720 feet.

On the 9th of July, 1958, an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in the Alaska Panhandle released about 40 million cubic yards of rock high above the northeastern shore of Lituya Bay. The loose mass of rock plunged from an altitude of about 3000 feet down into the waters of Gilbert Inlet.

The impact force of this rockfall generated a mega-tsunami that crashed against the southwest shoreline of Gilbert Inlet.

World’s Tallest Tsunami

7.8 earthquake

History and science consider the event in Lituya Bay as the largest tsunami of modern times. The enormous wave came after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that caused the rockslide.

Its epicenter was on the Fairweather Fault – in the heart of the seven miles long and two miles wide Lituya Bay.

According to the scientists who investigated the earthquake aftermath, the rocks, glaciers, and other debris fell from a height of roughly 3,000 feet and caused brutal consequences.

These rockslides resulted in the largest wave from a massive tsunami ever recorded in history. The mega-tsunami itself measured between 100 feet and 300 feet and the bigger subsequent breaking waves.

As the monstrous mountain of water started traveling across the entire length of the T-shaped Lituya Bay, it made a peak height of 1,720 feet near the Gilbert Inlet. Everything within and around the Gilbert Inlet was destroyed.

earthquake effects


“Edrie,” “Sunmore,” and “Badge”

At the time of the tsunami, three fishing boats were anchored in Lituya Bay – “Edrie,” “Sunmore,” and “Badge.” “Edrie” was secured at the Anchorage Cove, south side of the bay, nearly half a mile from the mouth.

The other two chose the opposite side of the bay – at the back of the spit that extended most of the way across the mouth of the bay.

Despite the relentless hurling waters, the occupants of “Edrie” and “Badge” surfed the massive waves. They got swept above the trees and washed back into the bay. The two passengers on “Sunmore” got caught in waves and died.

“The wave started in Gilbert Inlet, just before the end of the earthquake. It was not a wave at first. It was like an explosion or a glacier sluff. The wave came out of the lower part and looked like the smallest part of the whole thing. The wave did not go up 1,800 feet [548 meters]; the water splashed there.” – Howard G. Ulrich, Edrie’s owner, and survivor.

Large Waves and Lituya Bay

Lituya Bay

Legends have it that the Gulf of Alaska is no stranger to a tsunami. It can be a sleepy landscape of vast greens and blues with mountain ranges topped with snow on a typical day.

But, as docile as it may seem, it has experienced nature’s most violent behaviors.

The Lituya Bay has a shape that makes it a perfect environment for tsunamis to rise and fall. This explains why it has been, for the longest time, the record holder for the largest wave ever in the last 60 years.

Before the earthquake in 1958, Don J. Miller of the United States Geological Survey had been closely studying the evidence for large waves in the Lituya Bay. His documentation included at least four more large waves during the estimated dates of 936, 1899, 1874, and 1853.

Was This Large Wave A Tsunami?

The debate still goes on whether what happened in Lituya Bay was a wave or a tsunami. While the USGS used the term tsunami for this wave on many occasions, publications, and open file reports, other parties insist that it was a large wave and not a tsunami.

Largest Waves Recorded

Teahupo’o

Aside from the Lituya Bay incident, there have been the largest waves recorded in history. These waves were the size of office buildings that no coastal dweller would dare face.

Teahupo’o, 25 feet

Tahiti’s Teahupo’o holds one of the heaviest waves in the world.

Hangzhou, China, 29 feet

The Hangzhou Bay, known as the Quianang River, is famous for having the world’s largest tidal bore.

Banzai Pipeline, 30 feet

One of Hawaii’s deadliest surfing spots, Banzai Pipeline, has waves reaching up to 30 feet that claimed more than ten lives.

The Indian Ocean, 50 feet

The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004  traveled at speeds reaching 500 miles per hour. The 50 feet waves killed some 200,000 people.

Nazare, Portugal, 78 feet

In 2011, Garrett McNamara surfed one of the largest waves ever recorded and ever surfed. He attempted to try a hundred feet wave not long after, but there were no confirmations whether he’d done it.

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