Reconstructing the 26 June 1917 Samoa tsunami disaster

Laura Sischka, Cyprien Bosserelle, Shaun Williams, Josephina Chan Ting, Ryan Paulik, Malcolm Whitworth, Lameko Talia, Paul Viskovic

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The 1917 Samoa tsunamigenic earthquake is the largest historical event to impact this region. Over a century later, little is known about the tsunami magnitude and its implications for modern society. This study reconstructs the 1917 tsunami to understand its hazard characteristics in the Samoan region and assesses the risk implications of tsunamis sourced from different locations along the subduction zone bend of the Northern Tonga Trench (NTT). We model the event from its origin to produce outputs of tsunami inundation extent and depth at spatially flexible grid resolution, which are validated using available runup observations and Apia harbour tide gauge records. We then combine the inundation model with digital distributions of buildings to produce exposure metrics for evaluating the likely impacts on present-day coastal assets and populations if a similar tsunami were to occur. Results exhibit recorded and modelled wave arrival time discrepancies in Apia harbour of between 30–40 min, with runup underestimated in southeast Upolu Island compared with the rest of the country. These differences could reflect complexities in the tsunami source mechanism that are not represented in our modelling and require further investigation. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that if a characteristic 1917-type event were to occur again, approximately 71% of exposed people would reside in Savai’i. Overall, this study provides the first detailed inundation model of the 1917 tsunami that supports an appreciation of the regional risk to local tsunamis sourced at the subduction zone bend of the NTT in Samoa.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3389
Number of pages19
JournalApplied Sciences
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 26 Mar 2022


  • tsunami inundation
  • historical records
  • hazard risk exposure
  • Pacific
  • BG-Flood
  • RiskScape


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