Natural Hazards

, Volume 88, Issue 2, pp 797–819 | Cite as

The orphan Sanriku tsunami of 1586: new evidence from coral dating on Kaua‘i

  • Rhett ButlerEmail author
  • David A. Burney
  • Kenneth H. Rubin
  • David Walsh
Original Paper


We have re-examined the historical evidence in the circum-Pacific for the origin of the 1586 orphan tsunami of Sanriku, Japan, previously attributed to a Lima, Peru, earthquake and tsunami in 1586. New evidence comes from corals found in a unique paleotsunami deposit on Kaua‘i. Dated by 230 Th- 238 U geochronology these corals determine an absolute age in high precision of a Pacific tsunami event that was previously dated to approximately the sixteenth century by 14 C methodology. Detrital corrected ages of three low thorium, well-preserved coral clasts range from 415 to 464 years old (relative to 2016), with a mean age of 444 years ±21 (\( 2\sigma_{{\bar{X}}} \)). Literature evidence for circum-Pacific paleotsunami in this time range is reviewed in light of the new high-precision dating results. Modeled and observed tsunami wave amplitudes in Japan from several Peruvian events are insufficient to match the 1586 Sanriku observation, and paleodated earthquakes from Cascadia, the Alaskan Kodiak region, and Kamchatka are incompatible with the Sanriku data in several ways. However, a mega-earthquake (M w > 9.25) in the Aleutians is consistent with the Kaua‘i evidence, Pacific Northwest observations, and the Sanriku tsunami amplitude. The Kaua‘i coral paleotsunami evidence therefore supports the origin of the 1586 Sanriku tsunami in the Aleutian Islands.


Orphan tsunami 1586 Sanriku tsunami Kauai Makauwahi corals Tsunami modeling 230Th-234U-238U dating Kauai, Aleutian Islands, Japan, Peru, Cascadia, South America 



We thank Denys von der Haar for assistance with the Th-U analytical chemistry and L. Neil Frazer for discussions of Bayesian methods. Kenji Satake provided helpful comments in his review. HIGP Contribution Number 2254 and SOEST Contribution Number 9994.

Data statement

We are following NSF-GEO guidelines for sample and laboratory-based analytical data. Samples and sample metadata have been registered with SESAR ( and will be made publicly available upon publication of the paper. Coral U-series measured and derived data will be made available through the Geochron national archive managed by IEDA (Integrated Earth Data Alliance) and assigned a dataset DOI upon publication of the paper. Geochron is the preferred archive for geochronology data but is currently being adapted to host our data (it only supports U–Pb and Ar–Ar at present). Rubin is currently funded by NSF with several others to extend the Geochron archive to include U-series age data, so this capability will be available by the end of calendar year 2017.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and PlanetologyUniversity of Hawai‘i at MānoaHonoluluUSA
  2. 2.National Tropical Botanical GardenKalaheoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Geology and GeophysicsUniversity of Hawai‘i at MānoaHonoluluUSA
  4. 4.Pacific Tsunami Warning CenterNOAA Inouye Regional CenterHonoluluUSA

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