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Professional Paper 543–I

Tectonics of the March 27, 1964 Alaska Earthquake

By George Plafker

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (140 MB)Abstract

The March 27, 1964, earthquake was accomp anied by crustal deformation-including warping, horizontal distortion, and faulting-over probably more than 110,000 square miles of land and sea bottom in south-central Alaska. Regional uplift and subsidence occurred mainly in two nearly parallel elongate zones, together about 600 miles long and as much as 250 miles wide, that lie along the continental margin. From the earthquake epicenter in northern Prince William Sound, the deformation extends eastward 190 miles almost to long 142° and southwestward slightly more than 400 miles to about long 155°. It extends across the two zones from the chain of active volcanoes in the Aleutian Range and Wrangell Mountains probably to the Aleutian Trench axis.

Uplift that averages 6 feet over broad areas occurred mainly along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, on the adjacent Continental Shelf, and probably on the continental slope. This uplift attained a measured maximum on land of 38 feet in a northwest-trending narrow belt less than 10 miles wide that is exposed on Montague Island in southwestern Prince William Sound. Two earthquake faults exposed on Montague Island are subsidiary northwest-dipping reverse faults along which the northwest blocks were relatively displaced a maximum of 26 feet, and both blocks were upthrown relative to sea level. From Montague Island, the faults and related belt of maximum uplift may extend southwestward on the Continental Shelf to the vicinity of the Kodiak group of islands. To the north and northwest of the zone of uplift, subsidence forms a broad asymmetrical downwarp centered over the Kodiak-Kenai-Chugach Mountains that averages 2½ feet and attains a measured maximum of 7½ feet along the southwest coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Maximum indicated uplift in the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges to the north of the zone of subsidence was l½ feet. Retriangulation over roughly 25,000 square miles of the deformed region in and around Prince William Sound shows that vertical movements there were accompanied by horizontal distortion, involving systematic shifts of about 64 feet in a relative seaward direction. Comparable horizontal movements are presumed to have affected those parts of the major zones of uplift and subsidence for which retriangulation data are unavailable.

Regional vertical deformation generated a train of destructive long-period seismic sea waves in the Gulf of Alaska as well as unique atmospheric and ionospheric disturbances that were recorded at points far distant from Alaska. Warping resulted in permanent tilt of larger lake basins and temporary reductions in discharge of some major rivers. Uplift and subsidence relative to sea level caused profound modifications in shoreline morphology with attendant catastrophic effects on the nearshore biota and costly damage to coasta1 installations. Systematic horizontal movements of the land relative to bodies of confined or semiconfined water may have caused unexplained short-period waves—some of which were highly destructive—observed during or immediately after the earthquake at certain coastal localities and in Kenai Lake. Porosity increases, probably related to horizontal displacements in the zone of subsidence, were reflected in lowered well-water levels and in losses of surface water.

The primary fault, or zone of faults, along which the earthquake occurred is not exposed at the surface on land. Focal-mechanism studies, when considered in conjunction with the pattern of deformation and seismicity, suggest that it was a complex thrust fault (megathrust) dipping at a gentle angle beneath the continental margin from the vicinity of the Aleutian Trench. Movement on the megathrust was accompanied by subsidiary reverse faulting, and perhaps wrench faulting, within the upper plate. Aftershock distribution suggests movement on a segment of the megathrust, some 550–600 miles long and 110–180 miles wide, that underlies most of the major zone of uplift and the seaward part of the major zone of subsidence.

According to the postulated model, the observed and inferred tectonic displacements that accompanied the earthquake resulted primarily from (1) relative seaward displacement and uplift of the seaward part of the block by movement along the dipping megathrust and subsidiary faults that break through the upper plate to the surface, and (2) simultaneous elastic horizontal extension and vertical attenuation (subsidence) of the crustal slab behind the upper plate. Slight uplift inland from the major zones of deformation presumably was related to elastic strain changes resulting from the overthrusting; however, the data are insufficient to permit conclusions regarding its cause.

The belt of seismic activity and major zones of tectonic deformation associated with the 1964 earthquake, to a large extent, lie between and parallel to the Aleutian Volcanic Arc and the Aleutian Trench, and are probably genetically related to the arc. Geologic data indicate that the earthquake-related tectonic movements were but the most recent pulse in an episode of deformation that probably began in late Pleistocene time and has continued intermittently to the present. Evidence for progressive coastal submergence in the deformed region for several centuries preceding the earthquake, in combin1ation with transverse horizontal shortening indicated by the retriangulation data, suggests pre-earthquake strain directed at a gentle angle downward beneath the arc. The duration of strain accumulation in the epicentral region, as interpreted from the time interval during which the coastal submergence occurred, probably is 930–1,360 years.

First posted September 10, 2012
Revised August 8, 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., 1969, Tectonics of the March 27, 1964 Alaska earthquake: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 543–I, 74 p., 2 sheets, scales 1:2,000,000 and 1:500,000,






Tectonic Setting

Mechanism of the Earthquake

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

Four plates (2 oversized)

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