Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)

NATURAL DISASTERS

Chapter 7. MEGATSUNAMI

THE JAPANESE CALL it iminamiwhich means “the purifying wave.” They do this partly because it is a wave of such devastating strength that it completely erases the land of all impurities (impurities, in this case, being such blighting defects as your house, your car, and probably you, depending on how fast you can run and how well you float). But they also do this because they are much, much better at elegantly naming horrific events than the English-speaking world. We have a name for it too; we call it the megatsunami. Judging by the American tendency to just slap superlatives on existing terms, I guess we should just consider ourselves lucky that it’s not called the Biggie Wave or the Supersize Water Punch.

The concept behind the megatsunami is simple: If you throw a pebble into the water, you’ll see a reaction in the form of a rippling wave. If you threw 500 million tons of rock into the water, you’d be a total dick, but you would also see a wave of proportionate size … one so powerful that it jumps forests, snaps cities in half, and floods entire coastlines. But the phenomenon was predominantly thought to be a myth until just recently. See, scientists already know how tsunamis are triggered: Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other seismic events create waves that can crest at tens of meters high and hundreds of kilometers long that travel vast distances, surging onto land with unstoppable force. Conventional tsunamis, however, don’t really look like waves; they’re more akin to gargantuan tides, and the damage they do, though terrible, is mostly through flooding and not so much due to the impact of the water itself.

Other Examples of the American Tendency to Add Superlatives to Existing Terms Rather Than Create New Titles for Epic Disasters

·        Supervolcano

·        Hypercane

·        Megaquake

·        Überdiarrhea

But in 1953 in Lituya Bay, Alaska, geologists searching for oil stumbled across something much, much worse. By taking measurements of the tree line along the coast, they came to realize that a cataclysmic wave had completely destroyed the area in recent history. Seeing as how the bay was mostly isolated from the open ocean, they were able to determine that a gargantuan landslide was the likely cause. Forty million tons of debris had to tumble into that bay in order to spawn a tsunami large enough to account for the destruction they were witnessing. This would be a wave unprecedented in recorded history. A wave with an initial surge height estimated at over 1,700 feet.

Armed with this dire new information about a terrifying and impending threat, the geologists decided to issue absolutely no statement whatsoever, addressed to nobody, which would have probably just read “fuck it,” if they had even bothered to give it to anyone in the first place.

As the geologists in question whiled away their time—presumably playing a few games of grab ass and maybe frolicking hand-in-hand through a sun-kissed meadow—Lituya Bay was busy preparing another watery jump kick to the throat of reason. And only five years later, in that exact same bay, it happened again. An earthquake that measured 7.7 on the Richter scale caused a chunk of the Lituya Glacier to drop three thousand feet into the bay waters below. After the initial surge that topped out at 1,700 feet (that’s taller than the Empire State Building), a much more modest, practically meager wave with an initial height of only 1,000 feet swept across the bay, and out to sea. A local fisherman, Howard Ulrich, and his son were not only caught up in the ensuing megatsunami, but even managed to survive it—presumably by virtue of their giant, grizzly bear–sized balls and maybe some sort of Eskimo Magic. They reported being carried just behind the crest of the wave, which surged dozens of meters above the bayside cliffs, and over the local forest … while still in their fishing boat! Another survivor, Bill Swanson, gave this description to the local papers:

Excerpt from Alaskan Geologist’s Log, Circa 1953

“My God, I’ve discovered evidence of an entirely new scale of disaster!”

“We must tell the world!”

“That sounds hard…”

“You’re right. Screw it. Wanna beer?”

“That also sounds hard. Will you pour it into my mouth for, me?”

The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. I don’t mean it was just hanging in the air. It seems to be solid, but it was jumping and shaking like crazy. Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water.

Pressing Questions Raised by This Quote

What does that mean? Not hanging in the air solid but rising several hundred feet? How did it raise itself above the mountain? Did it grow temporarily? Was it raising its hackles, like some sort of giant, angry, mountainous dog? How can you be so calm?! THE DOG MOUNTAIN SHOT A SKYSCRAPER OF WATER AT YOU!

When asked to describe what happened next, Swanson says he is largely unsure, because “the wave started for us right after that and I was too busy to tell what else was happening up there.” While it normally might be safe to assume that Mr. Swanson was “busy” futilely sobbing in the fetal position and cursing the wicked God that unleashes such horrors upon the world, one must keep in mind that Bill Swanson was an Alaskan native, and Alaska in the 1950s was basically a nigh-unsurvivable land of extreme temperature, severe terrain, and all-night grizzly bear mauling orgies. So in this context, it’s pretty safe to assume that Bill Swanson’s laconic statement that he was “too busy” to properly witness the largest wave in recorded history means he was probably rabbit-punching a Sasquatch in the stomach because it owed him money.

But surely this particular phenomenon is too localized and too awful to occur anywhere else in the world but the harsh land of Lumberjack Wrestling and Salmon Cola?

Of course it is! Breathe a sigh of relief, friend!

Now hold that breath for the rest of your life, because that was a filthy lie. These things happen all the goddamn time:

·        Eight thousand years ago, a rockslide on Sicily’s Mount Etna caused a megatsunami that swamped three continents.

·        Eight thousand years ago, one of the world’s largest known rockslides caused a megatsunami originating in the Norwegian Sea. Scientists have found sediment from the slide as high as 65 feet above sea level, and as far as 50 miles inland … in fucking Scotland!

Though these intervals sound like vast periods of time, geologically speaking they’re like blinks of an eye. Nature has megatsunamis like you would change the channel—it’s just not a big deal anymore. But as human beings, it’s hard to see much beyond our own lifetimes, and events thousands of years ago just cannot be conceived of as threatening. So let’s skip right forward to another megatsunami in recent history.

In northeastern Italy in 1963, a landslide into a lake above the Vajont Dam triggered a small, localized megatsunami that completely destroyed five nearby villages, killing two thousand people (some sources say more). The dam, one of the highest in the world, stood 860 feet high and towered directly above the town of Longarone. When 270 million cubic meters of earth collapsed into the waters at a speed of roughly 70 mph, the resulting megatsunami was said to be over 800 feet high. This, when combined with the already massive height of the dam itself, led to a wall of water crashing down upon the quaint village of Longarone from nearly a quarter mile in the air. It is said that due to the particular location of Longarone—sandwiched between two towering cliffs, with the dam at the far end of the valley—if you stood in the town and faced the wave at its peak, it would have blocked out the entire eastern sky. It is also said that if you stood facing the wave at its peak height, you were both entirely fucked and totally dead, and therefore quite unlikely to tell anybody about this whole “blocking out the sky” thing in the first place, so you might want to take that story with a grain of salt.

Things to Do While Waiting for a Quarter Mile of Water to Crash Down on You

1.    Pray.

2.    Cry.

3.    Get a head start on dog-paddling.

4.    Jump in the air and flap your arms on the off chance you have secretly had the power of flight all this time and were not truly motivated to use it until now.

5.    Complete 1/16 of a crossword puzzle.

Though that knowledge certainly takes just a little of the joy out of life, it’s not exactly world threatening. An Alaskan fishing crew here, a quaint Italian village there; it’s probably nothing that can affect you, right?

Your optimism is so endearing!

But no, at some point in the near future there will be a megatsunami—one so massive that it will leave entire continents drowned in its wake. Because right now, off the northwestern coast of Africa in the Canary Islands on the isle of La Palma, there is an entire volcano ready to collapse into the water. A 1949 earthquake split the island’s southernmost mountain, Cumbre Vieja, completely in half—opening a fissure that caused the entire shore side of the volcano to shift nearly 7 feet down toward the water. The endangered half of the volcano has an estimated volume of 1.6 million cubic feet, which gives it an approximate mass of 1.5 × 1015 kilograms. Basically, you know you’re in fucking trouble when the numbers used to explain how much shit you’re in need other, smaller numbers to explain them. In short, this fissure puts more than 100 cubic miles of land in danger of sliding into the sea at the next serious volcanic eruption, so it kind of sucks that it’s literally the most active volcano in the area. On the upside, this proves conclusively that God has a sense of humor. On the downside, your fear of dying a horrible death is apparently his favorite punch line.

More of God’s Favorite Punch Lines

·        “Liquor? I hardly knew her!”

·        “Because he was stuck to the chicken!”

·        “I have a wife and kids!”

·        “I want to live! I want to liiive!”

When the mountain falls, the ensuing wave will initially reach heights of more than 2,000 feet, but would likely settle out to a paltry 100 when it hits land … in New York, in Boston, in Florida—the entire eastern seaboard of the United States actually, as well as parts of Brazil, the Caribbean, and Canada. At that point, the wave would be moving at a speed of nearly 700 mph (that’s nearly the speed of sound) and with enough force to uproot entire cities like weeds, drag broken skyscrapers miles inland, and generally just erase life like God spilled a bottle of Wite-Out on the Western Hemisphere. The wave would travel nearly thirty miles inland, completely submerging the major population centers of the United States before dragging all debris—human or otherwise—out to sea when it’s drawn back. A weakened but still devastating wave would hit across the entire Atlantic seaboard, but the brunt of the impact is squarely on American soil.

The resulting death toll and damage would be devastating to billions of people, and the lasting economic impact would completely destroy the modern way of life, effectively sending everybody not drowned or crushed by waylaid cities directly back to the Stone Age. The new bodies of standing water, millions of corpses, and unsanitary conditions would most likely wipe out the rest of the survivors with disease, but these are Americans we’re talking about here, goddamn it, and there’s just no way they’ll be totally wiped out by one little son-of-a-bitch wave!

And that’s good, because thanks to the rippling effect, there are going to be ten more right behind it.