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Open-File Report 2014–1024

The 1946 Unimak Tsunami Earthquake Area: Revised Tectonic Structure in Reprocessed Seismic Images and a Suspect Near-Field Tsunami Source

By John J. Miller, Roland von Huene, and Holly Ryan

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (8.4 MB)Abstract

In 1946 at Unimak Pass, Alaska, a tsunami destroyed the lighthouse at Scotch Cap, Unimak Island, took 159 lives on the Hawaiian Islands, damaged island coastal facilities across the south Pacific, and destroyed a hut in Antarctica. The tsunami magnitude of 9.3 is comparable to the magnitude 9.1 tsunami that devastated the Tohoku coast of Japan in 2011. Both causative earthquake epicenters occurred in shallow reaches of the subduction zone. Contractile tectonism along the Alaska margin presumably generated the far-field tsunami by producing a seafloor elevation change. However, the Scotch Cap lighthouse was destroyed by a near-field tsunami that was probably generated by a coeval large undersea landslide, yet bathymetric surveys showed no fresh large landslide scar. We investigated this problem by reprocessing five seismic lines, presented here as high-resolution graphic images, both uninterpreted and interpreted, and available for the reader to download. In addition, the processed seismic data for each line are available for download as seismic industry-standard SEG-Y files. One line, processed through prestack depth migration, crosses a 10 × 15 kilometer and 800-meter-high hill presumed previously to be basement, but that instead is composed of stratified rock superimposed on the slope sediment. This image and multibeam bathymetry illustrate a slide block that could have sourced the 1946 near-field tsunami because it is positioned within a distance determined by the time between earthquake shaking and the tsunami arrival at Scotch Cap and is consistent with the local extent of high runup of 42 meters along the adjacent Alaskan coast. The Unimak/Scotch Cap margin is structurally similar to the 2011 Tohoku tsunamigenic margin where a large landslide at the trench, coeval with the Tohoku earthquake, has been documented. Further study can improve our understanding of tsunami sources along Alaska’s erosional margins.

First posted March 21, 2014

  • Downloads Directory
    Contains: Table 2. Seismic images of the five seismic lines used in this report

For additional information, contact:
Director, Central Energy Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Box 25046, MS-939
Denver Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225–0046

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Suggested citation:

Miller, J.J., von Huene, Roland, and Ryan, H.F., 2014, The 1946 Unimak Tsunami Earthquake Area—Revised tectonic structure in reprocessed seismic images and a suspect near field tsunami source: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014–1024, 19 p.,


ISSN 2331-1258 (online)




Upgraded Bathymetry and Seismic Images




References Cited

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