Terrestrial Tour: The Case of the Orphan Tsunami and the Ghost Forest

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This feature video tells the story of the 1700 tsunami that was recorded in the Pacific Northwest United States and in Japan in very different ways. Scientists used a combination of written records, oral history, and geology to solve a 300-year-old mystery.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory.

·       Japanese artwork of flooded building from the Sanriku earthquake of 1896: University of British Columbia Library
·       Map of Japan in the Genroku Era and maps of the Suruga Province of Japan, 1702: Koreto Ashida Map Collection, Meiji University Library
·       Satellite image of Japan: World Wide Telescope
·       Photos of the ghost forest: Brian Atwater, USGS
·       Map of Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest by Hubert Howe Bancroft, 1883: Project Gutenberg
·       Satellite image of the Pacific Northwest: World Wide Telescope
·       Map of the North America by Gillaume Del’Isle, 1720: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division
·       Pages of a journal from Morioka, 1700: Morioka City Central Community Center, Documents Office
·       Visualization of the 1700 Cascadia tsunami: NOAA
·       Panoramic map by Mino Komaki, 1687: C. V. Starr East Asian Library–University of California, Berkeley

Written by Leah Ramsay
Designed by Dani Player and Leah Hustak
Editorial and design input from Margaret W. Carruthers, Timothy Rhue II, John Godfrey, and Claire Blome
Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

For more information about the Orphan Tsunami, see USGS Professional Paper 1707: “The orphan tsunami of 1700—Japanese clues to a parent earthquake in North America” by Brian F. Atwater, Satoko Musumi-Rokkaku , Kenji Satake , Yoshinobu Tsuji , Kazue Ueda , and David K. Yamaguchi (2015).

Text, The Case of The Orphan Tsunami and The Ghost Forest 
People living on the Japanese islands have kept records of earthquakes and tsunamis for more than 14 centuries. 
These records became key clues in solving a scientific mystery that spanned oceans and centuries. 
In the twelfth month of the twelfth year of the Genroku Era, the Japanese recorded an usual event, a tsunami that flooded more than 500 miles of the Pacific coastline, 
destroying dozens of homes and farms from Kuwagasaki to Tanabe with no ground-shaking warning beforehand. It was known as the orphan tsunami. 
Nearly 300 years later, researchers in the Pacific Northwest found evidence that a "ghost forest"—a once thriving woodland—had been killed by a massive inundation of saltwater. 
This was mysterious, because the region was not known for strong, tsunami-generating earthquakes. 
Unlike in Japan, the only records here were inscribed in the tree rings of the silent ghost forest, which had stopped growing after the summer of 16 99. 
However, people living in the Pacific Northwest had passed down accounts of disaster and survival. 
The Hoh Tribe says that Thunderbird and Whale had a horrible fight, shaking the mountains and causing the ocean to rise up and cover the land. 
The Yurok tell of Earthquake running up and down the coast, smashing down the earth so that the ocean flowed in. 
The Makah recall when Neah Bay was rapidly drained and then flooded, leaving canoes in the trees. 
The Tolowa tell of a boy and girl, sole survivors who outran the waves to a mountaintop, and remade the world alone. 
All along the coast, communities were passing down oral histories that matched up with the geological record. The same tsunamis that destroyed communities had created the ghost forest. 
The Japanese records helped fill in the blanks. By the modern calendar, the Genroku Era tsunami took place on January 26, 1700. 
Around 9:00 PM, built-up pressure between the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plates was violently released, jolting the coast from northern California to Vancouver Island. 
Tsunami waves spread out from the site of the earthquake. Some areas of the Pacific Northwest coast dropped as much as six feet, and the ocean surged inland. 
Trees that had stopped growing for the winter would never grow again. 
After 10 hours, the tsunami reached the coast of Japan, destroying homes and crops over a 500-mile span of coastline 
and puzzling a culture that was very familiar with tsunamis. 
By piecing together Indigenous oral histories, written records in Japanese texts, and geological clues, we now know where the mysterious orphan tsunami originated.