5 Things: The Newfoundland Tsunami of 1929


On November 18, 1929 the ocean to flooded into the communities of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula.  It washed away houses, boats and even people — some of whom were never seen again. In this edition of 5 Things, I thought I’d take a look at that disaster — The Newfoundland Tsunami of 1929. 

1. Earthquake. In the early evening hours, just after 5pm, of November 18, 1929 an earthquake shook Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. It measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and was felt as far away as Portugal (for comparison purposes, the famous California ‘World Series Earthquake’ in 1989 measured 6.9). The quake was felt in Newfoundland and caused the ground to tremor for about five minutes. It was not reported to have caused much serious damage — on land.
 
2. Landslide. The people of Newfoundland had no way of knowing that the earthquake triggered a large underwater landslide on the Grand Banks. The movement of the seafloor had displaced a lot of water, sending a series of giant ripples moving toward Newfoundland at speeds exceeding 100km/hr.
 
3. Tsunami. At about 7:30pm the people living along the coast of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula noticed a sudden drop in sea-level. The low water caused boats, that would normally be floating, to touch the harbour floor. The people had never experienced anything like it and had no way to know what was happening. 

In hindsight it makes sense, all waves have ridges and troughs (peaks and valleys). The wave (or tsunami1) that hit the Burin Peninsula did so with the trough reaching land first, causing the ocean-level to draw back, exposing the seafloor. The water that receded was building into the wave’s ridge which rushed back into the coves and up on to the land. This pattern of rise and fall was repeated several times resulting in three large waves over a period of about 30 minutes. 

Not all communities experienced the same rise in water. The height of a tsunami depends on a number of factors, including the shape of the coastal floor. So the same wave may be experienced differently along the coast. In many affected communities the water rose by less than 10 metres but in some places along the Burin Peninsula the sea water rose by nearly 30 metres. Just think about that — The Rooms, in St. John’s, is 38 metres tall.
 
4. Aftermath. The tsunami swept houses off foundations, destroyed fishing gear and washed away thousands of kilograms of harvested fish. All of that pales, of course, in comparison to the loss of human life. The number of dead totalled close to 30. Some bodies were swept out to sea and never seen again. It is recorded as, perhaps, the greatest loss of life attributable to an earthquake in Canada.2 Making matters worse, just prior to the tsunami the Burin Peninsula had experienced a storm that destroyed communication links. The people of the peninsula had no way to share what happened to them with the outside world. It was days (November 21) before a ship came into Burin and was able to relay the situation and call for help from the outside world. The S.S. Meigle, was dispatched from St. John’s with medical help and relief. On November 27, 1929 the St. John’s Daily News published an account from Hon. Dr. Mosdell who was aboard. He reported, “Dwelling houses were reduced to a condition reminiscent of wartime description of the effects of heavy shell fire.” 
 
 5. Snowstorm. As if coping with a tsunami wasn’t enough, conditions deteriorated. In the midst of the destruction, before they were able to make contact with the outside world, the region had to cope with a snowstorm. Temperatures dropped and the area was pelted with freezing rain and snow. Imagine it — their communities were destroyed, they lost loved ones and the weather made doing anything about it almost impossible. They must have felt miserable.

The tsunami of 1929 is an all-round horrible chapter in Newfoundland history. Rarely does our environment frighten me but the events of 91 years ago demonstrate that things can get scary and, when they do, sometimes it’s downright terrifying. 

— 
1. I grew up calling a tsunami a tidal wave. Tidal wave is poor name though, as the phenomenon has nothing to do with the tide.
2.There is an oral tradition which relates to a tsunami destroying an entire First Nations village in the 1700s, following a terrible earthquake in British Columbia.
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I’m a curious guy.  I always want to know more about the world and my place in it. The 5 Things pieces are an attempt to answer some of those questions. I set my sights on a topic, try to learn a little about it, and share what I've found.

Obviously, I’m no expert on the subject, 
but I’ll never knowingly lead you astray.

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