Today in Geological History – March 27th; The Great Alaskan Earthquake

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The second strongest earthquake ever recorded occurred at 5.36 pm AST (3.46 am 28/03 UTC) on Good Friday in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Registering a massive 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, it shook the region for 4 and a half minutes and generating a tsunami which propagated through out the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Plate moves northward and subducts under the North American plate along the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean creating a highly seismic zone and the explosive volcanics of the Aleutian Islands. On March 27th 1964 the Pacific Plate jolted forward in a megathrust earthquake causing major vertical and horizontal displacement in an area spanning over 250,000  km

At the time of the earthquake Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics was only just being proven by surveys of the worlds oceans. Although the study of seismology and the several large subduction earthquakes which happened in this era helped prove the theory it meant little was understood about the mechanics of megathrust earthquakes (a termed created in the wake of the Great Alaskan Quake). Earthquake resilient building standards where  at the time and all where unprepared for  the events of the Easter weekend.

At a depth of just 23 km the focus was just 125 km northwest of the states capital Anchorage which took most of the damage.It hit a high of XI on the Mercalli Intensity scale, the second highest mark, indicating the intensity of the shaking experienced in the area. The shaking tore apart buildings and subsidence ripped apart roads. Anchorage was built on sandy bluffs and clay, the earthquake caused a landslide which buried 75 homes. The control tower at Anchorage International airport was reduced to rubble.

139 people lost there lives, mainly due to the tsunami which badly hit much of the Alaskan coastline but also claimed lives as far away as Crescent City, California where 12 were killed. At its maximum the tsunami reached as high as 220 ft in Shoup Bay, but most were much smaller. Alaska was actually hit by multiple tsunami, one caused by the earthquake itself and then several local smaller waves up to hours later prolonging the suffering and hampering rescue operations.

The Great Alaskan Earthquake changed much of our understanding of the sheer power of our planet, which rang like a bell with vibrations for days after. Waterways as far south as Texas sloshed from side to side as the seismic waves where felt throughout the continent.

USGS worked quickly to collect data, recording the subsidence and uplift in the region. They began to see how secondary faults accommodated the erratic displacement. They also began to form a much clearer picture of the Aleutian Trench where the Pacific Plate subducts cementing the idea of plate tectonics. It also shone light on the major part soil liquefaction had in the destruction of the area. Core samples taken along the Copper River indicated that the Good Friday was not the first megathrust event in the area. Analyzing just 50 ft cores scientists revealed evidence of 9 megathrust earthquakes in the past 5,500 years.

The events of March 27th lead to the USGS beginning installation of an extensive earthquake-monitoring network across Alaska as part of the Advanced National Seismic System. In 1966 the National Earthquake Information Center was established as apart of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and was transferred to USGS control in 1973. By 1977 Congress passed the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act, the world was beginning to take the threat seriously.

Figure 1; https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theoildrum.com%2Fnode%2F8573&psig=AFQjCNHCK3Uk0lxyjJZhA8t2fmQn_Kq8iQ&ust=1459094529661721

Figure 2; http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/alaska1964/

Figure 3; http://www.wired.com/2009/07/tsunami/

 

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