Abstract

Along some coastlines there are erratic boulders apparently emplaced by tsunamis or cyclonic storms; evaluating their origin and time of emplacement places constraints on the frequency, severity, and location of coastal hazards. Seven such large coral limestone boulders are present near Fahefa village on Tongatapu Island, southwest Pacific, apparently emplaced by a prehistoric tsunami. These boulders are 10–20 m above sea level and above any possible source, and all are 100–400 m from the present shoreline. Coral 230Th ages indicate that the limestone formed during the last interglacial sea-level highstand, ca. 120–130 ka. The largest boulder is ~20 times more massive than any reported boulders emplaced by historically documented storms and may be the largest known tsunami or storm erratic worldwide situated above its source. We performed computer simulations to assess whether tsunamis produced by earthquakes, undersea landslides, or volcanoes could emplace the boulders. The simulations indicate that either volcanic flank collapse along the Tofua arc ~30–40 km to the southwest or undersea landslides on the submarine slopes of Tongatapu could be responsible. Either could explain why these boulders are not widespread on Tongatapu, and instead occur in a localized group along the western coast. This study demonstrates that small (<1 km3) submarine slope failures sometimes generate locally large tsunamis. The Fahefa boulders are in a well-studied and well-populated area, yet were unknown to the scientific community until recently; this suggests that systematic searches elsewhere for erratic boulders and other tsunami deposits might provide new information for assessing the size and extent of prehistoric tsunamis.

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