Lituya Bay, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Lituya Bay, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

by | Feb 26, 2023

Lituya Bay is a fjord located in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, about 97 miles (156 km) southeast of Yakutat and 70 miles (113 km) west-northwest of Gustavus, Alaska. The Tlingit name for the bay means ‘lake within the point’. It is 9 miles (14.5 km) long and 2 miles (3.2 km) wide at its widest point. The bay was first reported in 1786 by Jean-François de Lapérouse, or La Pérouse, who named it Port des Français. The Fairweather Fault is situated at the head of the bay, aligned with Gilbert Inlet to the north and Crillon Inlet to the south, and juxtaposes volcanic rocks of the Valdez Group to the northeast with a metamorphosed melange of marine sedimentary and volcanic rocks to the southwest. Movement along this active fault is responsible for at least four major tsunamis in 1854, 1899, 1936, and 1958.

According to Tlingit oral tradition, before the arrival of European explorers, the Chilkat and Hoonah tribes made long canoe trips to Yakutat each summer to trade with the Thlar-har-yeek tribe for copper which was fashioned into knives, spears, ornaments, and the well-known tinneh or ‘coppers’ which are shield-like pieces considered as money and which had a fixed value according to their size. One spring a large party from the great village of Kook-noo-ow on Icy Strait, started north under the leadership of three chiefs Chart-ah-sixh, Lth-kah-teech, and Yan-yoosh-tick. Upon entering Lituya Bay, four canoes were overwhelmed by waves and Chart-ah-sixh was drowned. The survivors made camp and mourned for their lost companions. While these ceremonies were being enacted, the ships of Lapérouse came into the bay. In June 1786, while exploring the Gulf of Alaska coast, Lapérouse found the opening to Lituya Bay while coasting along the Fairweather Mountains and sent small boats into the bay to look for an anchorage. The following day, his ships L’Astrolabe and La Boussole entered the bay on a flooding tidal current. He remained for 26 days making observations, surveying, and trading with the Tlingit people. But the visit was made most memorable by the loss of two of his boats and their crews of 21 officers and men in the strong currents at the mouth of the bay.

In 1958, a mega-tsunami was caused by an earthquake that generated a landslide at the head of the bay in Gilbert Inlet. The landslide created the highest recorded wave in history. The breaking wave had sufficient power to snap off all the trees to an elevation of 1,720 feet (520 m) on the slope directly opposite the landslide. As the wave traveled out of the bay it overtopped much of Cenotaph Island where three fishing boats were anchored. The Sunmore was underway and turning towards the bay entrance when it was caught by the wave, estimated to be 80 feet (24 m) high, and was swept over Harbor Point. All that was found later was an oil slick marking the spot where the boat went down in deep water and the two people on board were killed. The Edrie was at anchor but the chain snapped as the boat rose to meet the wave. At the top of the wave, the captain regained enough control of the boat to hold on and steer around the debris being carried by the wave. The Badger was hit by the wave and carried over La Chaussee Spit that nearly encloses the bay mouth, and was dumped stern first into the open ocean. After the crash landing, the boat immediately began to sink surrounded by acres of wood debris.  The crew managed to get into a skiff and were rescued at nearly midnight by the vessel Lumen which had picked its way through the miles of debris looking for signs of survivors in the pitch dark. Read more here and here. Explore more of Lituya Bay and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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