The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet

by Henry Fountain


View All Available Formats & Editions


New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice • A riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in North American recorded history—the 1964 Alaska earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and swept away the island village of Chenega—and the geologist who hunted for clues to explain how and why it took place.

At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2. earthquake—the second most powerful in world history—struck the young state of Alaska. The violent shaking, followed by massive tsunamis, devastated the southern half of the state and killed more than 130 people. A day later, George Plafker, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, arrived to investigate. His fascinating scientific detective work in the months that followed helped confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.

In a compelling tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain combines history and science to bring the quake and its aftermath to life in vivid detail. With deep, on-the-ground reporting from Alaska, often in the company of George Plafker, Fountain shows how the earthquake left its mark on the land and its people—and on science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101904060
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/08/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

HENRY FOUNTAIN has been a reporter and editor at the New York Times for two decades, writing about science for most of that time. From 1999 to 2009 he wrote "Observatory," a weekly column in the Science Times section.  He was an editor on the national news desk and the Sunday Review and was one of the first editors of Circuits, the Times' pioneering technology section. Prior to coming to the Times, Fountain worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, New York Newsday, and the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut. He is a graduate of Yale University, where he majored in architecture. He and his family live just outside of New York City. Learn more at

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Riding shotgun beneath the clouds in a rattling De Havilland Otter, George Plafker gazed down upon an Alaska he’d never seen before.

A geologist with the US Geological Survey, at the age of thirty-five Plafker was already something of an old Alaska hand. Though he was based at the Survey’s offices in Menlo Park, California, south of San Francisco (and with his wife, Ruth, had a modest house nearby where they were raising their three children), as a field geologist with its Alaska branch Plafker had spent many summers in the forty-ninth state. He was accustomed to exploring the back country for days at a time with little more than a rock hammer and a field notebook, some C rations to stave off hunger and a gun to ward off bears, studying and mapping rock formations to better understand, describe and catalog the state’s immense mineral resources. To a degree Plafker even looked the part of an Alaskan sourdough, lean and solid with a shock of wavy black hair swept behind half-moon ears, brown eyes and a large nose above a nothing-fancy mustache. His huge hands looked as if they’d be more at home holding a lumberjack’s ax or prospector’s shovel than a compass and hand level.

In his time in Alaska, Plafker had come to realize he didn’t much care for the vast tundra of the central and northern parts of the state. Much of this land was what the Russians had named taiga: the boreal forest, thick with conifers and willows and birches and, to his mind at least, essentially impenetrable. Even if you could somehow get around the terrain, interior Alaska was boring, geo- logically speaking. You could search across an entire quadrangle— about fifty square miles—and never find a rock outcropping, he said. To Plafker, that was a colossal waste of time: outcroppings were a geologist’s bread and butter, the key to understanding what the land was made of.

Southern Alaska—the grand arc of land from the Alaskan Peninsula in the southwest, up through Cook Inlet and Anchor- age and southeast to the Panhandle, encompassing Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska and the smaller islands of Prince William Sound—was more to his liking, and it was here he had done most of his work. The region was alive with rocks that a geologist, or anyone, could see. These were rocks that had been pressure-cooked for millions of years, shoved down, lifted up, ground and muddled and re-formed and folded over and under and this way and that. Some of them—the dark, slaty ones that were so jumbled as to lack much of what a geologist might consider character— Plafker and others affectionately referred to as “black crap.” Together with other kinds of rock they formed the region’s signature feature—its steep-sided mountains that, where they met the sea, formed deep, narrow fjords. What’s more, the mountains were draped by glaciers and laced with rivers, all of which wore at the rocks, grinding them into coarse gravel and fine silt and carrying it all down toward the sea in vast washes of sediment.

Bush pilots had flown Plafker across this geological wonder- land too many times to count, dropping him off at some remote lake or beach or God-knows-where location with instructions to pick him up a week or so later. But in all of his time looking at southern Alaska from the air, he had never seen anything like this.

Plafker had arrived in Anchorage, the state’s biggest city, from the Lower 48 the day before. In the late afternoon of the day before that—March 27, 1964, Good Friday on the Christian calendar— Alaska had been rocked by an enormous earthquake. No one knew precisely how strong it was. Of the state’s two seismographs, one, in Sitka, had been disconnected at the time and the other, in Fair- banks, had gone haywire, the fury of the quake proving too much for it. But there were reports that the shaking had lasted the better part of five minutes, which is an eternity for an earthquake. In the great San Francisco quake of 1906—a defining catastrophe in the history of the United States—the ground had shaken for perhaps sixty seconds. The duration of shaking is an imprecise measure of a quake’s power, but the longer the ground shakes, the greater the likelihood of widespread destruction.

Anchorage, from what Plafker had heard, had been hit hard. Whole blocks of the downtown were in shambles, with buildings and the streets they sat on torn apart by the tremors. One of the city’s best residential neighborhoods was a jumble of tortured earth, toppled trees and splintered houses. The count of dead and injured in the city was unclear, but at first brush the numbers did not seem staggeringly high. Anchorage residents, though, had clearly been through quite a ride and had been terrified. Soldiers were patrol- ling a swath of downtown to keep the city from descending into panicked chaos.

But there were reports of greater death and destruction else- where. Much of this appeared to be due, not to the shaking per se, but to tidal waves that the quake had spawned. Far beyond Anchorage, a coastal town in Northern California, two thousand miles away, had been hit by waves that had drowned an untold number of people. Closer to home, radio reports from Kodiak Is- land in the Gulf of Alaska suggested that more than one tidal wave had hit the island. The ports of Seward, on Resurrection Bay, and of Whittier, on Prince William Sound, were both said to have been severely damaged. But the most haunting news was coming from two other places in the sound: the port of Valdez, which sat in relative isolation at the head of a long fjord, and the small native village of Chenega, on an island of the same name.

The radioed reports about Valdez (pronounced val-DEEZ) seemed almost unbelievable: a long stretch of the waterfront, including docks, canneries and warehouses, had collapsed into the bay in an instant, taking more than two dozen residents with it. Valdez appeared to have suffered the largest loss of life of any Alaskan community—far greater even than Anchorage, which was many times its size. At Chenega (pronounced chuh-NEE-gah), a tidal wave had destroyed everything except the village schoolhouse on top of a hill. Along with their homes, a third of the villagers had been swept out to sea. There seemed to be little doubt that when the full toll of the disaster was known, Chenega would turn out to have the highest proportion of loss of life, by far, of any place in the state.

Plafker had come to Anchorage, along with two other Survey geologists, Arthur Grantz and Reuben Kachadoorian, to begin figuring out exactly what had happened. He’d had an inkling that things were going to be different when he’d flown in the day before on a Pacific Northern Airlines jet from Seattle. For one thing, the airline had announced that the plane would be landing at Elmendorf Air Force Base on the northeastern outskirts of Anchorage be- cause the international airport southwest of downtown was closed. Its control tower had toppled in the quake, killing an operator unlucky enough to be working on Good Friday.

That was unusual enough. But what Plafker saw from the jet- liner as it approached Anchorage was truly otherworldly.

He had flown into Anchorage enough times to be familiar with the usual f light path. Approaching the city from the south- east, planes have to get over the Chugach Mountains, a string of peaks that arcs from southwest to southeast and serves as a kind of shield protecting interior Alaska. The easiest air route over the Chugach was at Portage Pass, forty miles southeast of Anchorage. Just south of the pass was the small port of Whittier.

Like much of the coastline in southern Alaska, the area around Whittier was often covered by a sheet of low clouds, as wind-driven air picked up moisture from the water that then piled up on the seaward side of the Chugach. Today was no exception. But looking out the window of the plane as it slowly descended toward Anchor- age, Plafker was amazed to see a large, perfectly round hole in the clouds where Whittier should be. It was as if someone had taken a giant paper punch to the cloud layer.

It was only later, when Plafker saw the destruction of Whit- tier firsthand, that he put two and two together. Rising hot air, he realized, had created the hole in the clouds; when he’d flown over it, Whittier had been on fire.

Plafker and his colleagues had landed at Elmendorf that afternoon, less than twenty-four hours after the earthquake. They’d been shown to officers’ quarters—their civil service ratings made them colonels in the eyes of the military—and issued bunny boots and other cold-weather gear; although it was technically spring, southern Alaska was still blanketed in snow, and temperatures could easily hover at freezing or below. Then it was time to meet with the commanders of Elmendorf and the army base next door, Fort Richardson, to discuss the situation. The officers were happy to have the three scientists, even if they didn’t know much about them.

When the quake occurred, Plafker and Grantz had been in Seattle, 1,500 miles to the southeast, at a two-day meeting of the Cordilleran Section of the Geological Society of America. Grantz was an older Alaska hand than Plafker r. He had begun at the Sur- vey in the late 1940s, a time when packhorses were still sometimes used for Alaskan fieldwork. He was at the Seattle conference to de- liver a paper about his work dating rocks from the Chitina Valley, in the Copper River region southeast of Prince William Sound. Plafker, not scheduled to give a talk, had come to mingle and learn.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, the first day of the conference, word started spreading among the attendees about an earthquake in Alaska. The reports were sketchy, and there was little sense at that point of the scope of the disaster. But then a couple of scientists who had taken a break from the meeting to visit Seattle’s biggest tourist attraction—the 605-foot-high Space Needle, built for the 1962 world’s fair—came back to the conference. From the observation deck 520 feet up, they reported, they had felt the tower sway. This must be one heck of a quake, Plafker thought.

That evening, back in his hotel room, Grantz got a call from the Alaska branch office in Menlo Park. George Gryc, the branch chief, was on the line suggesting that, given Grantz’s and Plafker’s knowledge of Alaska, they should immediately fly up to Anchor- age. Kachadoorian, an engineering geologist with the branch who knew more about the impact of geology on structures, would fly up and join them. Grantz and Plafker had packed for only a two-day trip, so before going to the airport Kachadoorian would stop by their homes and pick up some fresh clothes from their wives.

Gryc was an Alaska veteran—he’d done some of the early geo- logical mapping of the Brooks Range, in the Far North, during World War II—but he’d worked elsewhere within the Survey as well, including time at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. He understood the Survey’s strengths and weaknesses. He knew that the Alaska branch didn’t have any real earthquake experts. But then again, neither did any of the Survey’s other branches. Earth- quake science, after all, was a young and small field. What the Alaska branch did have that was invaluable were people who knew how to get around the rugged state, who had gone up its creeks and walked its ridges, who wouldn’t be spooked by the isolation of the back country or the prospect of running into a bear. Grantz and Plafker were two of them. Get on the next plane, he told them.

So here they were, listening to the military commanders’ concerns. The bases had not been too badly damaged in the quake— although one of the barracks was now uninhabitable and the roof of a hangar had partially collapsed. But the officers were worried about the impact on other installations around the state and on the communications infrastructure that tied all of them together. In 1964, less than eighteen months removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was as frigid as ever, and Alaska was the Western Front, just fifty-five miles from enemy territory across the Bering Strait. The military had spent billions of dollars on listening posts and radar systems designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers or ICBMs. Communications were largely through a series of relay towers that dotted the state, and the generals were worried. Clearly the violent shaking had caused large-scale land movement, as they could see in Anchorage, where in the residential neighborhood that had been destroyed the land had been thrust forward. Presumably this kind of movement had happened elsewhere, the commanders said, and while so far it seemed that communications were unaffected, they were worried that that might change. With further tremors or settling, the communications systems, which required precise alignments of the network of towers, might be in jeopardy.

There were other concerns too. The only road from Anchor- age to Seward and Whittier, the two-lane Seward Highway, had been extensively damaged. Both ports were now effectively cut off from Anchorage and the rest of the state. The military needed to know what it would take to reopen the link. The Alaska Railroad, a lifeline for the fledgling state’s economy that brought shipborne cargo from Whittier and Seward into the interior of Alaska, had been heavily damaged and was shut down as well.

The geologists had concerns of their own, most urgently about the potential for catastrophic flooding. There were many large rivers in southern Alaska, and if one or more of them were blocked by a landslide the result could be disastrous. A landslide would act like a natural dam, blocking the river and allowing water to build up behind it. But sooner or later the pressure of all the water would prove to be too much: the water would overtop and erode the blockage and would hurtle downstream in a raging flood that could wipe out any river communities. Plafker and the others had to find out if there were any major blockages and if so, what could be done about them—divert the water, perhaps, or, in the worst- case scenario, move people out of harm’s way.

The scientists’ plan was to spend up to two weeks assessing the situation as best they could, with the goal of devising a full program of field research that could begin in the late spring and summer, when the ice and snow would be gone and surveying on the ground would be possible. The commanding officers asked how they could help. The geologists had a ready answer: aircraft and pilots, so they could do basic reconnaissance f lights and land at affected areas, if possible, for a closer look.

That was why, on Sunday afternoon, two days after the quake, Plafker found himself in the Otter, a workhorse of a plane that while grimy and noisy was more than adequate for reconnaissance work. With him were Grantz and a pilot, an army lieutenant named Jones. Kachadoorian, with his interest in the effects of the quake on buildings and other structures, had gone off in a vehicle to get a close look at the damage in Anchorage.

The Otter had taken off from a small airfield at Fort Richard- son and was soon over Cook Inlet, the large body of water that connects Anchorage with the Gulf of Alaska to the south. The pilot banked left and the plane headed southeast down Turnagain Arm, an inlet of the inlet, toward Whittier and Seward. Along the northern shore of the arm there was just enough flat terrain be- tween the water and the steep slopes of the Chugach for the Seward Highway and the single Alaska Railroad track.

The road and rails were a mess. The first rockslide had occurred not far from Anchorage, and there were others along the route, as well as snow avalanches. In places debris had completely buried the road and the railroad tracks; in other places it had just pushed them toward the water and torn them up, so that the steel rails were bent and tossed about like so much spaghetti.

Plafker had a camera, a 35mm Olympus with some high- quality lenses, to document the destruction. Between shots he took notes on what he saw. Behind him, Grantz held an unwieldy sheaf of topographic maps that he used to track the plane’s progress, marking the location of what Plafker was documenting on film.

It soon became apparent that more than rockslides had caused the damage. Both the road and the railroad crossed bridges over small rivers and streams on their way down Turnagain Arm, and Plafker noticed that something strange had happened to them.

Some of the bridges had toppled over, as might have been expected given all the shaking, but some of them hadn’t. Instead, their decks had popped up. To Plafker they now looked, in a way, like dilapidated versions of those quaint arched footbridges that are common in gardens in Japan. Some of the toppled bridges, he realized as he looked more closely, had popped up before they’d fallen over. To him it appeared that the land had shaken so much that the river banks had, in effect, turned to mush. The banks had moved, sliding toward the rivers and taking the bridge pilings with them. As the pilings had gotten closer to each other, the bridge decks, which were still connected to the pilings, had been squeezed. They had nowhere to go but up.

As the scientists approached Portage, a small town at the head of the arm where the road to Whittier splits off to the east, they saw groves of trees along the shore that were now sitting in seawater partway up their trunks. Before the quake they had to have been high and dry. That could mean one of two things: one, that the tides since the earthquake were now abnormally high, or two, that the land was now permanently lower, that it had sunk during the quake. The latter explanation seemed more likely; it also meant that Portage’s homes and businesses were going to be permanently inundated as well. The town was doomed.

Soon they were out over Prince William Sound itself, with its spectacularly rugged scenery of glaciers, fjords, islands, bays and channels. The famous naturalist John Muir had described the sound, on a visit in 1899, as “one of the richest, most glorious mountain landscapes I ever beheld—peak over peak dipping deep in the sky, a thousand of them, icy and shining, rising higher, higher, beyond and yet beyond one another, burning bright in the afternoon light, purple cloud-bars above them, purple shadows in the hollows, and great breadths of sun-spangled, ice-dotted waters in front.”

But now there were obvious signs that Muir’s glorious land- scape had been scarred by the earthquake. From the plane, Plafker and Grantz spotted trees and other debris in some of sound’s many bays and inlets, and evidence that parts of the coast had been hit by large waves or high water. There were areas along the shoreline, sometimes high up, where incoming water had washed the snow away. This “snow line” proved to be a convenient telltale for how high and far inland the water had come. At least the snow was good for something, Plafker thought. But high up along one inlet, Blackstone Bay, the hillside appeared to have been scoured; all the trees and other vegetation had been removed, leaving bare ground behind.

In his many f lights into the back country over the years, Plafker had occasionally seen signs of a recent rockslide or snow avalanche. But now, for as far as he could see around the sound, the landscape was full of them. The earthquake must have caused thousands of slides—some little, some big, some that left piles of rock debris or snow and ice at the base of a slope, some that created huge swaths of destruction as the debris traveled quickly over a wide area. And perhaps some of the slides weren’t really slides at all. The shaking had been so great that in a few cases it seemed that huge blocks of snow and ice had been f lung off mountaintops, landing in the valleys below.

The region’s many lakes, which had all been frozen over, showed the impact of the earthquake as well. On some, the frozen surface now looked like a jigsaw puzzle, the ice sheet fractured into hundreds of small pieces. But the ice on other lakes had remained in one piece, with raised ridges at the shoreline, suggesting that the ice sheet as a whole had moved back and forth during the quake.

Plafker knew he was witnessing destruction on a scale seldom seen anywhere. Clearly it was only the fact that Alaska was largely unsettled and empty that the toll in lives and property appeared to be relatively low; if a similar quake had happened in a heavily populated region the scale of the human disaster would have been overwhelming.

He couldn’t help but be in awe of the energy that had been un- leashed in just a few minutes two days before. But it was exhilarating to see this altered landscape up close. Over the droning of the engine, he and Grantz kept shouting at the pilot—to make another pass to get a better look at something, or to circle around while Plafker changed film. They didn’t want to miss a thing.

They flew on, at times barely above the treetops, eventually turning toward the southwest and the Kenai Peninsula. From there they headed back toward Anchorage, where they landed about four hours after they’d taken off, exhausted but amazed at what they’d seen.

That first f light was followed over the next few days by others. Plafker usually sat in the copilot’s seat so he could take photo- graphs. Grantz juggled the maps from a seat just behind. For their part, the military pilots liked the work—all the low-level f lying and detours to look at specific signs of quake damage were a welcome change from their usual tasks of ferrying equipment or military brass around.

Although he was not an earthquake expert, Plafker understood enough about quakes to know that what causes them is slippage along a fracture, or fault, in the rocks. Geologists see signs of faulting in rocks all the time, and Plafker had seen countless old small faults over the years in his fieldwork. This quake was so enormous and the effects were so widespread—they’d already flown across thousands of square miles of devastation—that the fault that had caused this one must be huge: so huge, in fact, that even if much of the rupture had happened out of sight (early guesses were that the slippage had occurred more than ten miles underground) there almost certainly had to be evidence of it at the surface. There had to be some disruption of the landscape along a more or less straight line, perhaps for dozens of miles, showing how the earth had moved this way and that. Yet as they flew around southern Alaska they saw nothing of the sort.

Plafker was intrigued—they had seen so much destruction wrought by the quake but no indication of what might have caused it. It began to gnaw at him a little. There was something different about this earthquake, he realized.

He couldn’t have known it at the time—he was just a field geologist, after all—but he’d be thinking about what made this earthquake different for the next few years. And for the rest of his career he’d be thinking about other quakes that were like it. The study of earthquakes, it would turn out, would become his life.

But first they had to record what they’d learned about the Alaskan quake from their two weeks in the state. Plafker, Grantz and Kachadoorian returned to Menlo Park to write up their findings, with Grantz taking charge of putting together a report, a “circular” in the parlance of the Geological Survey. And they made plans to return to Alaska with many more scientists in a few months, to further explore places like Chenega and Valdez and get a better understanding of why Alaska had been shaken to its core.


Excerpted from "The Great Quake"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Henry Fountain.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map of Alaska viii

Map of the Alaska Earthquake of 1964 ix

1 Altered State 1

2 Under the Mountain 13

3 An Accident of Geography 29

4 Clam Broth and Beer 45

5 The Floating World 55

6 Spiking Out 71

7 Before the Storm 87

8 Faults 107

9 Shaken 117

10 Stunned 143

11 The Barnacle Line 175

12 Rebuilding 193

13 Deep Thinking 207

14 Acceptance 223

15 Epilogue 231

Acknowledgments 245

Notes and Suggestions for Further Reading 248

Additional Sources 261

Index 270

Customer Reviews