When Mother Nature is in control, bigger is rarely better. One of history’s most notable exceptions was a cool July night in 1958 in Lituya Bay, a tranquil fjord in Alaska. Some 13 miles away, an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in the Alaskan panhandle shook the earth to its core, breaking 40 million yards of rock free high above the bay’s northeastern shore. Plunging 3,000 feet into the Gilbert Inlet, the raw force generated a torrent of displaced water, a 1,720-foot tsunami that tore away millions of trees baring a massive swath of land that can be seen to this day via satellite imagery. Howard Ulrich and his 7-year old son had entered Lituya Bay around 8 pm. A mere 2 ½ minutes after the earthquake was first felt, a deafening crash riveted the two. Quick to react, Ulrich released the anchor and started the engine as a wall of water ripped towards them at 100 miles per hour (mph). The anchor chain snapped, and the wave picked up the boat, carrying the two to safety.
The monster wave that would have topped and washed away the Empire State Building, the tallest in history, took only five lives. Nearly half a century on, a wave a tenth of its height took an unspeakable toll. At 7:59 am on December 26, 2004, thousands of American and European tourists who had inundated the beaches of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to mark the holiday in warmer climes were not awoken by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake that tore through an undersea fault in the Indian Ocean. The unsuspecting tourists in Banda Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, were closest to the epicenter. Within 20 minutes of the quake, the rolling 100-foot tsunami submerged the coastal city of 320,000 instantly killing 100,000.
Roaring across the Indian Ocean at 500 mph, 90 minutes later, the merciless tunnel of water hit the coastal provinces of Phang Nga and Phuket. No word had traveled. Intrigued by the surreally receding waves, some beachgoers even ventured out for a closer look only to be swept away by the colossal wave to come. The southeastern Indian city of Chennai was next on the deadly tour; there waters dammed by debris pushed inland killing 10,000, mostly women and children. The worst was yet to come for the island nation of Sri Lanka as the tsunami erased the land of structures; some 30,000 perished and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. The ravaging journey did not end for more than 30,000 miles, its mark left on 17 countries. That Boxing Day, the last of its 320,000 victims were claimed nearly eight hours later as unassuming swimmers in South Africa succumbed to the still swelling seas.