To most people, 50 years might seem like a long time to look back. That isn’t the case for many residents of our 49th state, Alaska — especially not on this day.
It was on this day in 1964, at 5:36 p.m. Alaskan Standard Time, that a fault rupture triggered the most powerful earthquake in United States history, and second strongest ever recorded by a seismograph. Alternatively known as the Great Alaskan Earthquake or the Good Friday Earthquake, it registered a moment magnitude of 9.2 and was accompanied by multiple tsunami that brought even more property destruction and loss of life. In all, it is estimated 139 people died that day.
To put the power in perspective, the 1964 Alaskan earthquake was stronger than the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, which registered at 9.0. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, one of the deadliest on record with about 3,000 lives lost, measured 7.8.
Tim Bartholomaus, a postdoctoral fellow here at the Institute for Geophysics (UTIG), earned his Ph.D. in Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in 2013. He said the impact — both scientific and social — of the 1964 earthquake is still quite vivid today.
“I think it is definitely still in the ‘memory’ of many Alaskans,” Bartholomaus said. “It serves as the model for a lot of ongoing work trying to understand fault rupture — in general, as well as specifically in the Aleutian Trench. Observations of the effects of the tsunami are still targets for inundation modeling.”
And in many places, there are reminders of the human element of the event.
“If you visit Valdez or Cordova, on the coast, you’ll find lots of placards and signs in memorial to the devastation,” Bartholomaus added.
Several colleagues of Bartholomaus – Michael West and Natalia Ruppert of the Alaska Earthquake Center at the Geophysical Institute at UAF, Peter Haeussler of the Alaska Science Center and Jeffrey Freymueller of the Alaska Volcano Observatory at the Geophysical Institute at UAF – co-authored an article entitled “Why the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake Matters 50 Year Later” and noted the many societal changes that took place in the aftermath of the earthquake, but this excerpt describes what may be the longest-reaching effect on Alaskan society:
“Among the most profound impacts, however, was creating a society that appreciates firsthand the power of earthquakes. Legitimate public discussions unfolded about how and where to build, but no one questioned the basic assertion that large earthquakes could wreak devastation. The earthquake is burned into Alaskans’ collective memories. A Facebook group for 1964 survivors has a membership on par with the Seismological Society of America. Alaskans understand that earthquakes are part of the landscape. Tsunami evacuation routes, weekly siren tests, and ShakeOut exercises mean more when neighbors still tell stories of where they were on 27 March 1964. Many children at play that afternoon are now Alaska’s political and business leaders. This knowledge came at a tremendous price, but its influence on the ensuing years of development is unmistakable. This is not to say that all Alaskans are well prepared for earthquakes. Nevertheless, the 1964 earthquake single handedly created a culture in which no one is surprised when earthquakes occur.”
(Seismological Research Letters, Vol. 85, No. 2, March/April 2014, p. 247)
UTIG has had a major presence in the geophysical and seismological research that has taken place in Alaska in recent years. The St. Elias Erosion/tectonics Project, also known as STEEP, includes UTIG researchers Gail Christeson, Sean Gulick, Paul Mann, and Harm Van Avendonk, along with graduate students Ryan Elmore, Lindsay Lowe Worthington and Bobby Reece. To learn more about STEEP, click here.
The United States Geological Survey has more information including an interactive online map about the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
Alaska Film Archives at UAF has posted a dramatic black-and-white video captured at Valdez Harbor when the earthquake occurred.
Finally, here is a link to more videos released by the USGS.
Article by Terry L. Britt, former Digital Media Coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics.