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The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunamis—A Modern

Perspective and Enduring Legacies


Introduction Nation except for Connecticut, Delaware, and Most of the population of Alaska and its major
The magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Rhode Island—registered the earthquake. It transportation routes, ports, and infrastructure
Earthquake, which struck south-central Alaska was so large that it caused the entire Earth to lie near the eastern segment of the Aleutian
at 5:36 p.m. on Friday, March 27, 1964, is the ring like a bell: vibrations that were among Trench that ruptured in the 1964 earthquake.
largest recorded earthquake in U.S. history the first of their kind ever recorded by modern Although the Great Alaska Earthquake was
and the second-largest earthquake recorded instruments. The Great Alaska Earthquake tragic because of the loss of life and property,
with modern instruments. The earthquake spawned thousands of lesser aftershocks it provided a wealth of data about subduction-
was felt throughout most of mainland and hundreds of damaging landslides, zone earthquakes and the hazards they pose.
Alaska, as far west as Dutch Harbor in submarine slumps, and other ground failures. The leap in scientific understanding that
the Aleutian Islands 800 miles away from Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, located followed the 1964 earthquake has led to
Anchorage, and at Seattle, Washington, west of the fault rupture, sustained heavy major breakthroughs in earth science research
more than 1,200 miles to the southeast of property damage. Tsunamis produced by the worldwide over the past half century. This
the fault rupture, where the Space Needle earthquake resulted in deaths and damage as fact sheet commemorates the Great Alaska
swayed perceptibly. The earthquake caused far away as Oregon and California. Altogether Earthquake and examines the advances in
rivers, lakes, and other waterways to slosh as the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis knowledge and technology that have helped to
far away as the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. caused 129 fatalities and an estimated $2.3 improve earthquake preparation and response
Water-level recorders in 47 states—the entire billion in property losses (in 2013 dollars). both in Alaska and around the world.

Damage to the Seward Highway caused


by the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
Photograph by the U.S. Army.

U.S. Department of the Interior Fact Sheet 2014–3018


U.S. Geological Survey March 2014
Scientific Impact of the Great Alaska Earthquake
Support for the Theory of Plate Tectonics
North American Plate, it descends, or
At first, geologists did not know how subducts, into the Earth’s mantle along the
such a huge earthquake could have happened, Aleutian Trench. Subduction zones like
because the prevailing theories of the day could southern Alaska’s occur throughout the
not explain such a large movement. So they world, and the 1964 Alaska earthquake was
examined the earthquake within the framework the first to be generally understood by earth
Tsunami damage to the waterfront area of Kodiak,
of a new theory, plate tectonics, which scientists as having occurred on a subduction
Alaska. USGS photograph by George Plafker.
proposed that the crust of the Earth consists zone interface: the slip was along the gently
of about a dozen or so major sections, or dipping boundary, or “megathrust fault,” tsunamis produced by the 1964 Great Alaska
plates, that sit on top of the hot mantle below between the denser downgoing oceanic plate Earthquake was one of the first events to
and slowly move past each other or collide. and the lighter overriding continental plate. demonstrate to scientists that an earthquake
Compelling evidence for this theory is that Since 1964, subduction zones have been may cause changes of seafloor depth that
most earthquakes occur near the boundaries recognized elsewhere, including Indonesia, generate transoceanic tsunamis.
of these plates, and the plates’ movements Japan, and Chile, where great earthquakes The 1964 earthquake was giant because
through geologic time help to explain many have also occurred during the past 60 years. of the large area of the fault that slipped
of the landforms and processes that we observe The understanding gained from the 1964 during the earthquake and the large amount
on Earth. Great Alaska Earthquake provided the of slip, or relative motion, between opposite
Earth  scientists   now   recognize   that   the geological framework for assessing   the sides of the earthquake fault. Current
1964  Great  Alaska  Earthquake  resulted   from earthquake and tsunami hazards estimates of the average slip along the
plate convergence: where the Pacific at all convergent margins megathrust fault during the 1964 earthquake
N
Plate is being overridden by the around the world. are in the range of 30 feet, with some patches
Anchorage
For example, the that slipped as much as 60 feet!
Turnagain
Heights Government Hill

Map of southern Alaska


showing the epicenter
Tu
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of the 1964 Great Alaska


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Earthquake (red star),


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caused when the Pacific


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Plate lurched northward 0 10


underneath the North

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Anchorage

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American Plate. There

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was extensive damage
NORTH AMERICAN

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to coastal towns and Kenai

t
infrastructure throughout P L AT E Peninsula Whittier Valdez
the region, particularly Cook Prince
in Anchorage, Seward, Inlet Seward William
E Sound
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Whittier, and Valdez.
DE
Widespread uplift occurred Chenega Copper River
I
BS
seaward of Kodiak Island Montague Delta
D
SU
Island
and the Kenai Peninsula,
A NC E Middleton
while subsidence occurred T
inland as a result of the Kodiak L IF RFA Island

magnitude 9.2 earthquake.


Kodiak UP SU URE
Island B T
In 1964, there were no SU UP
instruments in Alaska R
capable of recording the PA C I F I C P L AT E
earthquake, but now there h
is an extensive network of
N Trenc
stations (yellow squares) tia n
that monitor the seismically
Aleu ALASKA
active plate boundary )
P A C I F I C O C E A N map CANADA
along the Aleutian Trench. ailed
(det
0 100 Modern seismic stations
MILES Volcanoes
Movement of plate
Seismogram of 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake from station in Weston, Massachusetts. Each line is 30 minutes. Image courtesy of IRIS Data Management System.

Observation and Explanation of and in the Kodiak  Island area, show that the
In areas experiencing initial sudden
Earthquake Ground Deformation last 1964-type earthquake may have occurred
subsidence, such as Cook Inlet and much
Geologists from the U.S. Geological of Kodiak Island, coastal forests and peaty 880 years ago and that the average interval
Survey (USGS) were the first earth scientists marsh deposits dropped below sea level and between great earthquakes is about 535 years.
to respond to the devastated region, and they were killed by the sudden inundation by Middleton Island, located offshore
mapped land-level changes resulting from salt water. These drowned forests become southern Alaska, was uplifted about 10 feet
the 1964 earthquake all along the coast of buried by marine silt, and, in some places, by the 1964 earthquake, and a new wave-
southern Alaska. They were astonished to by tsunami sand deposits. During the gradual cut terrace was formed. The observation of
find that the earthquake was accompanied by uplift that follows, salt-water-tolerant peat this new landform led to subsequent USGS
vertical shifts of the Earth’s surface over an eventually accumulates on the marine silt, study of a series of five other wave-cut
area two-thirds the size of California. Parts of and new forests grow on the peat. In other terraces that were first noticed on the island
the coast sank, or subsided, as much as 8 feet, places, such as the Copper River Delta, in 1933 but were not originally recognized
and other parts rose by as much as 38 feet. In located closer to the Aleutian Trench, as earthquake-related features. Geologists
addition, geodetic surveys showed that much sudden uplift occurs first, followed by slow realized that each terrace had been formed by
of coastal Alaska moved seaward at least submergence between earthquakes. uplift during a great 1964-type earthquake.
50 feet. The uplift and subsidence data from Sediment cores collected through these Radiocarbon dating of fossil driftwood
the 1964 earthquake have been repeatedly cyclic uplift/subsidence deposits have yielded from beach deposits on these older terraces
used to test models of how subduction zones an unprecedented 5,600-year-long record of showed that the repeat times for these prior
rupture during great earthquakes and to great earthquakes along the southern Alaska earthquakes ranged from 400 to 1,200 years,
calculate how much the plates shifted along coast. In the Copper River Delta, the cores with an average of 800 years. Since the 1964
the fault plane at depth. show evidence of 9 prehistoric earthquakes, earthquake, similar wave-cut terraces have
It is now recognized that major implying an average interval of about 600 been recognized and used in other subduction
subduction-zone earthquakes produce a years between 1964-type great earthquakes in zones to better assess the hazards and
pattern of uplift of the coastline above the southern Alaska. Other studies to  the west of earthquake recurrence intervals associated
shallowest and most seaward part of a the Copper River Delta, in  the Turnagain Arm with them.
rupture, and that subsidence of the coastline
occurs farther inland from the rupture. This The movement of the Pacific Plate northward beneath the North American Plate resulted in
pattern gradually reverses over a period of subsidence in some areas and uplift in others. Whale Bay, on Prince William Sound (inset), rose
decades to centuries as continuing plate nearly 10 feet, but a roadway on the Kenai Peninsula sank beneath sea level and was washed out.
motion restores the Earth’s Both USGS photographs by George Plafker.
surface to its pre-earthquake
state. This cyclic pattern
was first revealed in the
studies following the 1964
earthquake.
Recognizing Hazards due to Movement on
Secondary Faults
The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake
demonstrated that secondary faults that
spread out or splay upward from the main
rupture plane can accommodate much
of the horizontal and vertical movement One span of the Million Dollar Bridge in
the Copper River Delta slipped off its pier,
associated with the sudden plate motion.
and other spans shifted on their piers
These splay faults can locally uplift the due to liquefaction of soils during the
seafloor, causing the water above to be strong ground shaking of the Great Alaska
displaced and creating a tsunami. The Earthquake. In other places, railroad
hazards posed by secondary splay faulting tracks buckled and were torn from their
can be severe because, although localized, ties (inset). USGS photographs by R.
the uplifts and tsunamis produced by Kachadoorian and M.G. Bonilla (inset).
the 1964 earthquake were greater than
those generated by displacement in the
Increased Understanding of Liquefaction
subduction zone itself. These secondary railroad bridges were destroyed when
ruptures were commonly located closer Catastrophic soil failure in the their pilings and piers sank or spread
to shore, reducing the travel and warning Alaskan and Niigata, Japan, earthquakes apart because the underlying soils flowed.
times of the waves. After the 1964 in 1964 provided a new insight that Parts of the railroad were out of service
earthquake, vertical uplifts of 36 feet were liquefaction of sandy soils caused by for nearly six months. The 1964 Alaskan
mapped along splay faults on Montague earthquake shaking poses a major threat and Japanese earthquakes prompted
Island, and vertical uplifts along related to the stability of engineered structures. extensive government-funded research by
faults were inferred to extend as far south During strong earthquake shaking, geotechnical engineers in both countries
as Kodiak Island. These uplifts produced geologically young, water-saturated sandy on the physics of liquefaction and
large tsunamis on the Kenai Peninsula deposits can act like a liquid, causing implications for structural stability. Their
near Seward and on Kodiak Island. Such them to flow downhill and to lose their findings led to the development of field-
secondary faulting is likely also responsible ability to support manmade structures based methods to determine liquefaction
for the tsunami disaster in Aceh, Indonesia, during the shaking. More than $30 million potential of coarse-grained soils; these
during the 2004 Great Aceh-Andaman in damage, from both liquefaction and methods are used around the world by civil
Earthquake. tsunamis, was sustained by the federally engineers to ensure the safety of structures
owned Alaska Railroad. Many important in earthquake-prone areas.

The waterfront of Whittier, Alaska, was heavily damaged by tsunamis generated by


underwater landslides. Whittier was an important all-weather port for both governmental
and industrial groups, but the dock facilities were destroyed and were inoperable for
months following the earthquake, tsunamis, and a major fire at a fuel-tank farm. Left
photograph, aerial view of the waterfront during the fire; right photograph, railroad tracks
and tanks that were mangled by the ground shaking and subsequent landslides.
Increased Understanding of Earthquake last ruptured in 2002 in a magnitude 7.9 estuaries of the U.S. west coast sustained
Hazards in Alaska and Elsewhere earthquake (see USGS Fact Sheet 014-03, millions of dollars in damage. Such
http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2003/fs014-03/). The destruction from such a faraway earthquake
The understanding of the characteristics
plate tectonic picture is more complicated in provided motivation for the development
of subduction zones, and the earthquakes
eastern Alaska, where variations in crustal of West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning
and tsunamis such zones produce, dates
thickness cause the Pacific Plate to descend Center (now called the National Tsunami
largely from the 1964 Great Alaska
at a shallower angle than in the west. This Warning Center), operated by the National
Earthquake. Geologists are thus able
shallower angle increases earthquake Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
to identify the hazards posed by great
hazards in southern Alaska because it causes which uses earthquake data supplied by the
subduction-zone earthquakes in areas where
the great earthquakes to occur closer to USGS. Tsunami warning centers can now
they have not occurred recently, or even in
the Earth’s surface and, therefore, places send alerts within minutes of an earthquake
historical times, like the Cascadia subduction
population centers at higher risk. that has the potential for generating a
zone (along the coast of British Columbia,
tsunami. Although this system works well
Washington, Oregon, and northern
Tsunami Hazard Assessments and for tsunamis that travel across the ocean, it is
California). Identifying these hazards in
Warnings too slow to provide significant warning time
advance will help reduce losses in future
for tsunamis generated by local splay-fault
great earthquakes. An important lesson from the
ruptures and submarine landslides. For these
Since the 1964 Great Alaska 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, and
local tsunamis, the strong shaking produced
Earthquake, scientists at the USGS and from subsequent great subduction-zone
by the earthquake serves as the tsunami
elsewhere have used Global Positioning earthquakes, is that tsunami damage can
warning. Tsunami risk is also mitigated by
System (GPS) receivers to accurately be much more widespread than shaking
mapping tsunami inundation zones, planning
measure the rate at which the Pacific Plate damage, and it can occur thousands of
evacuation routes, educating coastal
is converging with southern Alaska, as well miles from the causative earthquake. The
communities and their visitors, constructing
as the rate of motion along crustal faults orientation of the 1964 fault rupture directed
tsunami-resistant infrastructure, and creating
in southern Alaska. These measurements the tsunami southeastward toward the
earthquake monitoring and tsunami warning
show that the Pacific Plate is sliding beneath Washington, Oregon, and California
systems and centers, all of which have been
southern Alaska at an average rate of 2.3 coastline, where it caused extensive
completed and are regularly updated for
inches per year. The plates move in a flooding and damaged
harbors. Sixteen people the U.S. west coast and other areas where
stick-slip motion with strain accumulating
tsunamis may occur.
on the Aleutian subduction zone when it died and the
is stuck, and strain is suddenly released coasts and
when the subduction zone slips, causing an N
earthquake. GPS measurements also show
that this plate convergence compresses the
crust of southern Alaska, pushing it
out to the west along faults with
horizontal (lateral) offsets
such as on the Denali
Fault, which

The 1964 Great Alaska


Earthquake occurred
where the cold, dense
Pacific Plate is moving north,
pushed into and under the more
buoyant North American Plate. EXPLANATION
The Yakutat Plate (labeled YAK) is Fault sections ruptured in historical record: Fairweather
a fragment of oceanic crust, like the Fault (1958), Aleutian Megathrust Fault and Patton Bay
Pacific Plate, and is being dragged along Fault Zone (PBFZ; 1964), Denali and Totschunda Faults
(2002). Barb on upper plate
into the subduction zone on top of the Pacific
Plate, inhibiting the movement of the downgoing Faults with prehistorical ruptures. Barb on upper plate
plate. The cross sections show how the Pacific Movement of plates
and Yakutat Plates together are more buoyant and Volcano
subduct at a shallower angle than the Pacific Plate 1964 epicenter and surface projection of rupture patch in
alone. subduction zone
Effects of the Earthquake Enduring Legacies
Survivors of the 1964 Alaska In 1964, no instruments capable  of
earthquake will never forget the strong recording the strong ground motions produced
shaking that lasted for as much as four by the Great Alaska Earthquake were located
and a half minutes when a 580-mile in southern Alaska. Since then,  in cooperation
section of the fault plane ruptured. with the State of Alaska,  the USGS has installed
assess-
One Anchorage resident recorded his an extensive earthquake-monitoring network as
ment and
observations throughout the earthquake, part of the Advanced National Seismic System.
evaluation
describing shaking at his residence that (For more information, see Fact Sheet 075–00,
of earthquake
lasted for four minutes. The long duration http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2000/fs075-00/.)
hazards in
of the movement led to significant ground Such recordings provide data seismologists
Alaska.
failures, slumping, landsliding, and need to assess shaking hazards during future
The establishment of the USGS
liquefaction in the Anchorage area. Massive earthquakes,  and are used to prepare the USGS
National Center for Earthquake Research in
landslides were triggered in and near National Seismic Hazard Maps (http://pubs.
1964 brought together the USGS earthquake
downtown Anchorage and Government usgs.gov/fs/2008/3017/) and ShakeMaps,
expertise into a single point of focus, and
Hill, as well as in the Turnagain Heights which show the distribution and severity of
it became a cornerstone of the USGS
residential area. Water and gas mains, as earthquake ground motion. Using ShakeMaps
Earthquake Hazards Program, in turn a major
well as sewer, telephone, and electrical and a comprehensive worldwide population
element of the National Earthquake Hazards
systems were disrupted throughout database, the USGS now makes rapid estimates
Reduction Program (NEHRP). Under the
Turnagain Heights owing to landslides. of the expected fatalities and economic losses
direction of the NEHRP, the USGS protects
In southern Alaska, where the loss of from large earthquakes around the globe using
life and property by monitoring earthquakes
life was largest, 70 percent of the fatalities a system called PAGER, or Prompt Assessment
nationally and internationally, making
resulted from tsunamis generated by of Global Earthquakes  for Response (see
seismic-hazard assessments used in building
massive submarine landslides that occurred Fact Sheet 2010–3036, http://pubs.usgs.gov/
codes and for other purposes, conducting
on steep slopes of the seafloor. Because of fs/2010/3036/). The ground-motion data
research in earthquake occurrence and physics,
the proximity of many of these submarine from more recent events are  also used by the
and performing outreach and education on
landslides to coastal communities, the engineering community to  design buildings and
earthquake phenomena and hazards.
tsunamis they created reached landfall other structures to resist  earthquake shaking,
within a few minutes of the start of ground helping to minimize loss of life and property.
shaking and inundated some areas as much The scientific observations and interpre- Additional Resources
as 170 feet above sea level. The coastal tations of the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake
The Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami,
communities of Whittier, Valdez, and are preserved in publications for use by future
USGS Earthquake Hazards Program:
Seward were hit particularly hard by these generations. The USGS published the results of
http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/
locally caused tsunamis. Chenega, a small its comprehensive study of the 1964 earthquake
alaska1964/
village in Prince William Sound, lost 23 in a series of six Professional Papers (avail-
people—a third of its population—when able at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/ Earthquake Preparedness Guide, Alaska
a 65-foot wave arrived about four minutes alaska1964/) that document geologic, seismo- Earthquake Information Center:
after the earthquake. These sobering logic, and hydrologic observations following the http://www.aeic.alaska.edu/html_docs/next-
facts show that residents of any coastal earthquake, as well as earthquake- and tsunami- bigeq.html
community need to immediately head related damage to infrastructure and Alaska “Magnitude 9.2,” video by  the  USGS:  
to higher ground when they feel seismic communities. The data continue to be used on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvl-4IWjH
shaking. a daily basis for land-use planning  as well as Xo&list=UUeXH8GZyV3sVqAr45AvupOA
&feature=share&index=3

Thomas M. Brocher, John R. Filson,


Gary S. Fuis, Peter J. Haeussler,
Thomas L. Holzer, George Plafker,
and J. Luke Blair

Edited by Claire M. Landowski


Graphic design by Jeanne S. DiLeo

Earthquake Science Center


U.S. Geological Survey
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Cape Cleare on Montague Island was uplifted 33 feet during the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, creating the new http://earthquake.usgs.gov;
terrace shown here. The white coating on the rocks—about a quarter of a mile wide—is the remains of marine Earthquake Information Hotline: (650) 329-4085
microorganisms that were desiccated when the seafloor was uplifted out of the water. On the mountains in the This Fact Sheet and any updates to it are
background, light gray patches are landslides triggered by ground shaking. Photo at top right shows ground failure available online at
and damage to homes in the Turnagain Heights area of Anchorage, Alaska. USGS photographs by George Plafker. http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2014/3018/
ISSN 2327–6932 (online); ISSN 2327–6916 (print)
Printed on recycled paper http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/fs20143018