Raise your hand if you knew Newfoundland was devastated by a major tsunami in 1929

Reposted from Polar Bear Science

Posted on December 10, 2020 |

Only a few months ago, I discovered that the Burin Peninsula on the south shore of Newfoundland in eastern Canada was devastated by a major tsunami in 1929, which inspired my new short novel, UPHEAVAL. My story is about an ice tsunami that devastates Cape Breton Island in 2026 (an ocean wave triggered by an earthquake or underwater landslide becomes an ice tsunami when it travels under sea ice before it comes ashore). Here are the details on that little-known 1929 tsunami event – which even a colleague who is a tsunami advisor for his area of Alaska and family members who had lived in Nova Scotia had never heard of before.



On 18 November 1929 a tsunami struck Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula and caused considerable loss of life and property. Giant waves hit the coast at 40 km/hr, flooding dozens of communities and washing entire homes out to sea. The disaster killed 28 people and left hundreds more homeless or destitute. It was the most destructive earthquake-related event in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history and occurred at the beginning of a worldwide depression.

Despite the magnitude of the earthquake which precipitated the tsunami, no one in Newfoundland and Labrador anticipated the approaching danger. Large-scale seismic events are rare in eastern North America and virtually non-existent in Newfoundland and Labrador; in 1929, the country did not even possess a seismograph or tide gauge which could warn of the tsunami. Moreover, a recent storm had severed the single telegraph line linking the Burin Peninsula with the rest of the island; it was not until almost three days after the tsunami struck that the Squires government learned of the disaster and was able to send help.

‘Grand Banks’ Earthquake

At 5:02 p.m. on Monday 18 November 1929, an underwater earthquake occurred on the southern edge Grand Banks, about 265 kilometres south of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula. It measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and was recorded in locations as far west as New York and Montreal and as far east as Portugal. On the Burin Peninsula, ground tremors lasted for about five minutes but did not cause any serious damage to houses or other structures. No one in the area had experienced an earthquake before, and although a few people understood what was happening, none imagined the tsunami that would follow.

On the Grand Banks, the earthquake triggered a sizeable underwater landslide, which in turn forced a series of large waves across the ocean’s surface. The tsunami raced towards Newfoundland at speeds of up to 140 km/hr, before slowing to about 40 km/hr in shallower water. It registered on tide gauges in Bermuda, Portugal, the Azores, and along the United States’ eastern coast. Newfoundland, however, had no knowledge of the giant waves that were quickly approaching its southern coast.
Tsunami Reaches Burin Peninsula

At about 7:30 p.m., residents along the Burin Peninsula noticed a rapid drop in sea level as the lowest point of the tsunami’s first wave, known as a trough, reached the coast. As the water receded, it exposed portions of the ocean floor that were normally submerged and caused boats docked at various harbours to tumble over onto their sides. Minutes later, three successive waves hit the shore and water levels rose dramatically. In most places, the sea level swelled three to seven metres above normal, but in some of the peninsula’s long narrow bays, such as at Port au Bras, St. Lawrence, and Taylor’s Bay, the water rose by between 13 and 27 metres.

The force of the waves lifted houses off their foundations, swept schooners and other vessels out to sea, destroyed stages and flakes, and damaged wharves, fish stores, and other structures along the peninsula’s extensive coastline. Approximately 127,000 kilograms of salt cod were also washed away by the tsunami, which affected more than 40 communities on the Burin Peninsula. At Point au Gaul, giant waves destroyed close to 100 buildings as well as much of the community’s fishing gear and food supplies; St. Lawrence lost all of its flakes, stages, and motor boats. Government assessment later placed property damage on the Burin Peninsula at $1 million.

Worse than the damage to property, however, was the loss of human life. The tsunami killed 28 people in southern Newfoundland, which is more than any other documented earthquake-related event in Canadian history. Twenty-five victims drowned during the disaster (six bodies were washed out to sea and never found) and another three later died from shock or other tsunami-related conditions. The deaths were confined to six communities: Allan’s Island, Kelly’s Cove, Point au Gaul, Lord’s Cove, Taylor’s Bay, and Port au Bras. Fortunately, the tsunami struck on a calm evening when most people were still awake and could quickly react to the rising water; many managed to evacuate their homes and flee to higher ground.

Read the whole thing here.

See also The 1929 Magnitude 7.2 “Grand Banks” earthquake and tsunami

’90 years later, a tsunami in southern Newfoundland still brings vivid memories‘ (CBC News report, Nov. 18 2019):

The Newfoundland Tsunami of November 18, 1929: An Examination of the Twenty-eight Deaths of the “South Coast Disaster” (2006):

Ruffman, Alan. 1994. The November 18, 1929 ‘ Tidal Wave’: Canada’s Most Tragic Earthquake [Abstract]. Atlantic Geology, Vol. 30, No. 2, July, pp. 157-158.

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mark from the midwest
December 12, 2020 6:54 am

My hand is not raised. From a geophysical standpoint does this mean that there is a chance for another major event soon, so that the “Climate Woke” will be distracted by another “shiny object?”

Reply to  mark from the midwest
December 12, 2020 7:13 am

There’s a “chance”…

Curious George
Reply to  David Middleton
December 12, 2020 9:30 am

The map does not show any tsunami hazard.

Reply to  Curious George
December 12, 2020 11:00 am

Tsunami = Seismic sea wave.

A tsunami is a type of seismic hazard. Coastal seismic hazard zones generally have an elevated tsunami risk.

Curious George
Reply to  David Middleton
December 12, 2020 1:56 pm

Agreed. There are areas of “high hazard” under the sea, but the area of 1929 tsunami does not stand out.

Reply to  David Middleton
December 12, 2020 4:36 pm

The earthquake that triggered the tsunami occurred in an area that stands out like a sore thumb.

Reply to  mark from the midwest
December 12, 2020 10:38 am

Yes, and we’re all going to die!

Bruce Cobb
December 12, 2020 7:08 am

And if you raised your hand, ok smarty-pants; raise your other hand if you knew that the “ghost ship” Mary Celeste’s original name was Amazon.

Reply to  Bruce Cobb
December 12, 2020 7:54 am

That smart guy sure looks like Captain Bezos….

Bruce Cobb
Reply to  bonbon
December 12, 2020 8:35 am

No fair Googling.

Ben Vorlich
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
December 13, 2020 12:26 am

I watched a very interesting documentary on the ship about years ago, but didn’t remember her former name. From memory The theory was that alcohol stored inbarrels made out of a porous oak leaked fumes which put the crew/captain’s family in danger so they tried to row to nearby land, possibly The Azores, and for some reason failed.

Bruce Cobb
Reply to  Ben Vorlich
December 13, 2020 10:25 am

Close, but not quite. There was no land nearby, but the most most plausible theory is that they fled to the lifeboat, which was tethered to the ship. In the cargo hold were oak casks containing 100-proof alcohol, and, the theory goes, a few casks leaked, creating fairly dense, flammable fumes set off by friction between the steel barrel hoops, chaffing due to high seas. The resulting explosion would have created panic, and fear of more explosions, resulting in fleeing to the lifeboat. In gale force winds at the time, enough force could have been created to snap the tether rope, stranding all.

December 12, 2020 7:38 am

My father-in-law (deceased) was born and raised in the Burin Peninsula, born in the early 20’s, so probably was affected by this!

December 12, 2020 7:41 am

“St. Lawrence lost all of its flakes, stages, and motor boats”

What are flakes and stages?

Bryan A
Reply to  icisil
December 12, 2020 8:36 am

Flakes and stages are the wooden drying racks for drying and processing Cod fish

Duncan MacKenzie
Reply to  icisil
December 12, 2020 7:52 pm

First time I ever saw that usage of flake.

Reply to  Duncan MacKenzie
December 13, 2020 4:02 pm

Last time I heard of flake, he was a Senator from Arizona.

Duncan MacKenzie
Reply to  icisil
December 12, 2020 7:54 pm
Norman Milliard
December 12, 2020 7:57 am

Raising my hand. I’ve read two book on the Newfoundland Tsunami.

We’ve traveled 7 months a year for the last 20 years and attempt to fit to two months a year of travel in Newfoundland and Labrador, our favorite place in North America (11 visits so far). We have read the Newfoundland published books on the subject and visited the affected area.

If you want to learn about the heart of the people of Newfoundland read ‘The Day the World Came to Town’. I’m a fast reader but cried my way through this book. Though the people of Newfoundland are not great church goers, they have true Christian hearts.

Reply to  Norman Milliard
December 12, 2020 10:40 am

But have you seen Republic of Doyle or listened to all the Thistle and Shamrock episodes about Newfoundland?

Norm Milliard
Reply to  bluecat57
December 12, 2020 12:37 pm

Go to Youtube and watch Land and Sea programs.

Norman Milliard
December 12, 2020 8:08 am


Icisil>>>>>I believe flakes are the racks used to dry Cod. Stages are typically dock sheds used to split the Cod after returning from fishing.

We are RV people and have traveled 7 months a year for the last 20 years,. During that period we have visited Newfoundland and Labrador for two months 11 times. It is our favorite place in North America.

If you want to get a good glimpse of the people of Newfoundland read “The Day the World Came to Town”. I’m a speed reader but was slowed down by tears. The Newfoundland people are not great church goers but are definitely the most naturally Christian people I know.

Paul C
December 12, 2020 8:08 am

Flakes are racks for drying fish, and a landing stage is a floating jetty. Both very vulnerable infrastructure on the coast. (yes i did have to look up flakes).

Norm Milliard
Reply to  Paul C
December 12, 2020 8:58 am

The Fogo Island Inn, one of the worlds most exclusive hotels is an Fogo Island off the north coast of Fogo Island is modeled after a (fish) Stage. $2 to 3,000 a night meals included.

Keith Harrison
Reply to  Norm Milliard
December 12, 2020 11:28 am

Fogo’s along way from Burin Pen

Norm Milliard
Reply to  Keith Harrison
December 12, 2020 12:35 pm

Fogo is certainly a good ride from the Burin but not too far. You typically get to the Burin via TC1. This takes you pretty close to the road to Fogo.

John Pickens
December 12, 2020 8:33 am

What would the impact of a similar tsunami be today, considering current population levels and building proximity to sea level?

Norman Milliard
Reply to  John Pickens
December 12, 2020 10:47 am

The population of Newfoundland and Labrador is only about 550,000 people. Actually about half the people live in the St John’s area. The majority of people in Labrador live inland. Newfoundland is unlike any coastal area in the USA, really low population density along the coast. Most of coastal NL and Labrador do not have coastal roads. The entire south coast has virtually no roads, similarly with most of coastal Labrador.N

Brian Pratt
December 12, 2020 8:37 am

The undersea ground movement broke submarine cables, but what was unexplained was why cables were broken in many places in sequence even hours later. Heezen and Ewing (1952) explained this as due to the turbidity current that was triggered. This ushered in the modern understanding of deep-sea gravity currents and sedimentation. That one event deposited a huge amount of sediment. That story is in the geology textbooks, but it is true that the tsunami had been forgotten for a long time.

Wim Röst
Reply to  Brian Pratt
December 12, 2020 10:12 am

This is what could have happened: a submarine landslide like one of the Storegga slides in front of the coast of Norway. This could explain the main places where cables were broken. A huge ice shelf has covered the region and caused of lot of debris to be built up at the sea bottom during the last glacial(s). An earthquake could have caused a massive landslide at the same moment in several underwater valleys, causing the cables to be broken in many places at about the same time.

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storegga_Slide

Norman Milliard
Reply to  Brian Pratt
December 12, 2020 1:35 pm

Another Newfoundland fact, in 1858 the first transatlantic cables connected Ireland and Heart’s Content, Newfoundland. Newfoundland has a whole bunch of cute names for some of its towns.

Reply to  Brian Pratt
December 12, 2020 4:37 pm


Norm Milliard
December 12, 2020 8:55 am

When you visit the Outports, end of the road fishing villages, you find everyone is crowded around the shoreline, really crowded. In the old days people frequently had an inland cabin to escape the on shore winter storms. To this day you’ll frequently find people in Newfoundland with a cabin a very few miles from their in town home. This ‘Outport isolation’ bred a true community.

Farms are rare in most of Newfoundland. One day we were on the Burin and stopped at one of those rare farms. The farmer invited us to his home for a supper time “snack’. His home, so we thought, was at the end of the field. It turned out he had a regular home about 4 miles away in town and on the back 40 he had a small cabin as a true get away.

Most of these Outports were supplied by ship in the early part of my lifetime. When we drove across Labrador, a 1000 mile dirt road, in 2008, we camped next to a hotel in Cartwright on Lake Melville. The owner owned the gas station across the road from the hotel. He said until they opened the Trans Labrador Highway he had to store 8 months of gasoline, since there was no guaranteed supply until ice breakup. The people of Labrador call the Trans Labrador Highway the Freedom Road because they had a source of supply. It is kept open year round. The snow drifts in places makes the road look like a canyon.

Don B
December 12, 2020 10:44 am

I am well into “Upheaval” which I recommend wholeheartedly. It is a page turner, as was Susan Crockford’s “Eaten.” Entertaining and educating.

It is impressive that a scientist and polar bear guru can write entertaining fiction – both sides of her brain work well.

norm milliard
December 12, 2020 10:50 am

I recall there was well traveled seaman in one of the communities who when the water began to recede from a harbor warned people to get to high ground.

Keith Harrison
December 12, 2020 11:34 am

A detailed account is found in Linden McIntyre’s book, “The Wake.” (2019)

USN lost a ship off the coast. Newfoundlanders saved many from death in the icy waters. This is also a story of hardrock mining and hard times.

Norm Milliard
Reply to  Keith Harrison
December 12, 2020 1:30 pm

I believe the a USN destroyer was lost in a storm off the Burin town of St. Lawrence. The sailors were trapped at the base of a high cliff. People from St. Lawrence repelled down the cliff, rescuing about 200 sailors. After the war the USA built a hospital for St. Lawrence. St. Lawrence is a town of 1,200. Speaking of hard rock mining, the town for many decades had a Fluorspar that closed in the 70’s but there are plans to reopen it. We have been there and met families that rescued those sailors. By the way a town of 1200 is a big town on the Burin though there is no place to have lunch there. The smallest town we’ve gone to is Tilt Cove, 4 people… we’ve been there twice, a former coastal copper mine.

December 12, 2020 12:12 pm


One of the original settler’s houses in Burin was found floating out in the bay by a ship, they rescued a daughter from her upstairs bedroom, pushed the house to shore, used tackle to drag it on-shore and found the mother and siblings dead in the kitchen. The house was later pulled up the hill and put on a new foundation.

We don’t build houses like we used to…

Norm Milliard
Reply to  Prjindigo
December 12, 2020 12:32 pm

Newfoundlanders often floated their homes to move them.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Norm Milliard
December 12, 2020 1:53 pm

Thanks for all your great info

My job has taken me all across canada including across the far north but I still have not made it to the maritimes.

We were going to Halifax in July for the Rider Argo game, golf and sightseeing

But covid

Newfoundland definitely on the list

Bill Parsons
Reply to  Norm Milliard
December 12, 2020 2:36 pm

Thanks for your local color. Good stories. A non-fiction book set off the coast in those icy waters is “The Hungry Ocean”, by Linda Greenlaw, who styles herself “The only female swordfish boat captain on the East Coast of the U.S.” Great tales of fishing and yankee ingenuity and she knows how to write too. She captained the sister boat of the Andrea Gayle, which was the doomed fishing boat depicted in Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm”.

When I was reading the Anne of Green Gables to my 8-year old daughter, I figured Prince Edward Island was pretty much at the ends of the earth. I gather there are some points north. : – )

It’s a good time to be reading books. I’ll need to look for Susan Crockfort’s tale.

Norm Milliard
Reply to  Bill Parsons
December 12, 2020 5:30 pm

Bill, We’ve gone to PEI a number of tie and my visit to Green Gables, walking down Love Lane was very special. It became even more of a wonder when I read the the book, Definitely a good read for everyone.

Norman Milliard
December 12, 2020 5:32 pm

Sorry for writing too much about Newfoundland. My wife says I can go on for hours on Newfoundland

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