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Professional Paper 543–E

Effects of the Earthquake Of March 27, 1964 in the Copper River Basin Area, Alaska

By Oscar J. Ferrians, Jr.

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF 17.6 MB)Abstract

The Copper River Basin area is in south-central Alaska and covers 17,800 square miles. It includes most of the Copper River Basin and parts of the surrounding Alaska Range and the Talkeetna, Chugach, and Wrangell Mountains.

On March 27, 1964, shortly after 5:36 p.m. Alaska standard time, a great earthquake having a Richter magnitude of about 8.5 struck south-central Alaska. Computations by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey place the epicenter of the main shock at lat 61.1° N. and long 147.7° W., and the hypocenter, or actual point of origin, from 20 to 50 kilometers below the surface. The epicenter is near the western shore of Unakwik Inlet in northern Prince William Sound; it is 30 miles from the closest point within the area of study and 180 miles from the farthest point.

Releveling data obtained in 1964 after the earthquake indicates that broad areas of south-central Alaska were warped by uplift and subsidence. The configuration of these areas generally parallels the trend of the major tectonic elements of the region. Presumably a large part of this change took place during and immediately after the 1964 earthquake.

The water level in several wells in the area lowered appreciably, and the water in many became turbid; generally, however, within a few days after the earthquake the water level returned to normal and the suspended sediment settled out. Newspaper reports that the Copper River was completely dammed and Tazlina Lake drained proved erroneous.

The ice on most lakes was cracked, especially around the margins of the lakes where floating ice broke free from the ice frozen to the shore. Ice on Tazlina, Klutina, and Tonsina Lakes was intensely fractured by waves generated by sublacustrine landslides off the fronts of deltas. These waves stranded large blocks of ice above water level along the shores. River ice was generally cracked in the southern half of the area and was locally cracked in the northern half.

In the area of study, the majority of the ground cracks occurred within a radius of 100 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. Ground cracks formed in flood plains of rivers, in deltas, and along the toes of alluvial fans. They also occurred locally in low terraces adjacent to flood plains, in highway and other fill material, along the margins of lakes, along the faces of steep slopes of river bluffs and hillsides, and in areas cleared of vegetation for several years.

The ground cracks were restricted to areas underlain by unconsolidated deposits where one or more of the following conditions existed: (1) permafrost was absent or deep lying, (2) the ground-water table was near the surface, (3) bedrock was relatively deep lying, and (4) slopes were steep. Because the earthquake occurred in March, seasonal frost was present throughout the area.

Despite the diversity of local conditions, the origin of most of the ground cracks can be explained by the following mechanisms: (1) lateral extension, caused by materials moving toward an unconfined face such as a lakeshore, river bluff, hillside, or terrace escarpment; (2) horizontal compaction, caused by repeated alternate compression and dilation (in the horizontal direction) of materials in flat-lying areas where there are no unconfined faces; (3) differential vertical compaction, caused by the shaking of materials that vary laterally in thickness or character; and (4) combinations of the above.

Snowslides, avalanches, and rockslides were restricted to the mountainous areas surrounding the Copper River Basin. They were especially numerous in the Chugach Mountains which are closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. The large amount of snow and rock debris that has cascaded onto the icefield and glaciers of these mountains, and, probably even more important, the overall disturbance to the ice field will affect the regimen of the glaciers.

Most of the damage to manmade structures occurred in the southern half of the area, and, primarily because of the sparsity of population and manmade structures, property damage was not great and no lives were lost.

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:

Ferrians, O.J., Jr., 1966, Effects of the earthquake Of March 27, 1964 in the Copper River Basin area, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 543–E, 28 p.,



Introduction and Acknowledgments

Geographic Setting

Geologic Setting

The Earthquake and Its Aftershocks

Geologic Effects of the Earthquake

Effects of the Earthquake on Manmade Structures


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