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Professional Paper 543–D

Geologic Effects of the March 1964 Earthquake and Associated Seismic Sea Waves on Kodiak and Nearby Islands, Alaska

By George Plafker and Reuben Kachadoorian

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF 22.9 MB)Abstract

Kodiak Island and the nearby islands constitute a mountainous landmass with an aggregate area of 4,900 square miles that lies at the western border of the Gulf of Alaska and from 20 to 40 miles off the Alaskan mainland. Igneous and metamorphic rocks underlie most of the area except for a narrow belt of moderately to poorly indurated rocks bordering the Gulf of Alaska coast and local accumulations of unconsolidated alluvial and marine deposits along the streams and coast. The area is relatively undeveloped and is sparsely inhabited. About 4,800 of the 5,700 permanent residents in the area live in the city of Kodiak or at the Kodiak Naval Station.

The great earthquake, which occurred on March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m. Alaska standard time (March 28,1964, 0336 Greenwich mean time), and had a Richter magnitude of 8.4-8.5, was the most severe earthquake felt on Kodiak Island and its nearby islands in modern times. Although the epicenter lies in Prince William Sound 250 miles northeast of Kodiak—the principal city of the area—the areal distribution of the thousands of aftershocks that followed it, the local tectonic deformation, and the estimated source area of the subsequent seismic sea wave, all suggest that the Kodiak group of islands lay immediately adjacent to, and northwest of, the focal region from which the elastic seismic energy was radiated. The duration of strong ground motion in the area was estimated at 2½ minutes. Locally, the tremors were preceded by sounds audible to the human ear and were reportedly accompanied in several places by visible ground waves.

Intensity and felt duration of the shocks during the main earthquake and aftershock sequence varied markedly within the area and were strongly influenced by the local geologic environment. Estimated Mercalli intensities in most areas underlain by unconsolidated Quaternary deposits ranged from VIII to as high as IX. In contrast, intensities in areas of upper Tertiary rock ranged from VII to VIII, and in areas of relatively well indurated lower Tertiary and Mesozoic rocks, from VI to VII.

Local subsidence of as much as 10 feet was widespread in noncohesive granular deposits through compaction, flow, and sliding that resulted from vibratory loading during the earthquake. This phenomenon, which was largely restricted to saturated beach and alluvial deposits or artificial fill, was locally accompanied by extensive cracking of the ground and attendant ejection of water and water-sediment mixtures.

Numerous landslides, including a wide variety of rockfalls, rockslides, and flows along steep slopes, were triggered by the long-duration horizontal and vertical accelerations during the earthquake. The landslides are most numerous in a narrow belt along the southeast coast of Kodiak Island and the nearby offshore islands. Their abundance appears to be related to an area underlain predominantly by Tertiary rocks.

Temporary and permanent changes of level occurred after the earthquake in some wells, lakes, and streams throughout the area; ice was cracked, and the salinity of a few wells increased. Permanent change of water level at some localities appears to be related to readjustments of fracture porosity by earthquake-induced movements of bedrock blocks. Increased salinity of wells in coastal areas resulted from encroachment of seawater into aquifiers after subsidence during the earthquake, and to flooding of watersheds by seismic sea waves.

Vertical displacements, both downward and upward, occurred throughout the area as a result of crustal warping along a northeast-trending axis. Most of Kodiak and all of Afognak, Shuyak, and adjacent islands are within a regional zone of subsidence whose trough plunges gently northeastward and approximately coincides with the mountainous backbone of Kodiak Island. Subsidence in excess of 6 feet occurred throughout the northern part of the zone-a maximum subsidence of 6½ feet having occurred on Marmot and, eastern Afognak Islands. Southeast of the axis of tectonic tilting, uplift of at least 2lh feet occurred in a narrow zone that includes most of the southeasterly capes of Kodiak Island, the southeastern half of Sitkalidak Island, and Sitkinak Island. The uplift is inferred to extend offshore over much or all of the continental shelf adjacent to the Kodiak group of islands. Within the affected area, tectonic subsidence, which was locally augmented by surficial subsidence of unconsolidated. deposits, caused widespread inundation of shorelines and attendant damage to intertidal organisms, nearshore terrestrial vegetation, and salmon-spawning areas.

The most devastating effect of the earthquake on Kodiak Island and nearby islands resulted from seismic sea waves that probably originated along a linear zone of differential uplift in the Gulf of Alaska. A train of at least seven seismic sea waves, having initial periods of 50–55 minutes, struck along all the southeast coast of the island group from 38 to 63 minutes after the earthquake. The southeast shores were repeatedly washed by destructive waves having runup heights along exposed coasts of perhaps as much as 40 feet above existing tide level, and of 8–20 feet along protected shores. Runup heights of the waves were much less on the northwest and southwest sides of the islands, and no wave damage was incurred there. Locally, high-velocity currents that accompanied the waves caused intense erosion and redistribution of unconsolidated natural and artificial shore deposits and of shallow sea-floor deposits.

The Alaska earthquake was the greatest natural catastrophe to befall the Kodiak Island area in historic time. The combination of seismic shock and the earthquake-related tectonic deformation and seismic sea waves took 18 lives, destroyed property worth about $45 million, and resulted in estimated losses of income to the fishing industry of an additional $5 million.

Most of the damage and all of the loss of life were directly attributable to the seismic sea waves that crippled the city of Kodiak, wiped out the village of Kaguyak, and destroyed most of the village of Old Harbor and parts of the villages of Afognak and Uzinki. Bridges and segments of the highways in the vicinity of the city of Kodiak were washed out, and parts of the Kodiak Naval Station were inundated and damaged. Especially serious to all the damaged communities was the loss of fishing boats, seafood processing plants, and other waterfront installations, which had been the mainstay of the economy.

Additional heavy losses resulted from the combined regional tectonic and local surficial subsidence that occurred during the earthquake. Widespread shoreline flooding by high tides necessitated raising, protecting, or removing many installations otherwise undamaged by the earthquake or waves.

Structural damage attributable to seismic shock during the earthquake was relatively light and was restricted to areas underlain by saturated unconsolidated deposits. The chief structural failure in the area as a result of shaking was the collapse of part of a cannery built on saturated beach deposits that were partially liquefied during the earthquake. Minor structural damage resulted from differential settlement and cracking of the ground on natural granular deposits and artificial fills. The overwhelming majority of structures are constructed on indurated bedrock; none of these sustained damage other than small losses resulting from shifting about and breakage of their contents.

First posted October 31, 2012
Revised August 13, 2013

For additional information:
Contact Information, Menlo Park, Calif.
   Office—Earthquake Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Road, MS 977
Menlo Park, CA 94025

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Suggested citation:

Plafker, G., and Kachadoorian, R., 1966, Geologic effects of the March 1964 earthquake and associated seismic sea waves on Kodiak and nearby islands, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 543–D, 46 p.,




The Earthquake and Its Aftershocks

Surficial Subsidence and Associated Ground Cracks


Effects of Ground and Surface Water

Seismic Sea Waves

Damage and Casualties

References Cited

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