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Professional Paper 544–E

Seismic Seiches from the March 1964 Alaska Earthquake

By Arthur McGarr and Robert C. Vorhis

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF 4.7 MB)Abstract

Seismic seiches caused by the Alaska earthquake of March 27, 1964, were recorded at more than 850 surface-water gaging stations in North America and at 4 in Australia. In the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, 763 of 6,435 gages registered seiches. Nearly all the seismic seiches were recorded at teleseismic distance. This is the first time such far-distant effects have been reported from surface-water bodies in North America. The densest occurrence of seiches was in States bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

The seiches were recorded on bodies of water having a wide range in depth, width, and rate of flow. In a region containing many bodies of water, seiche distribution is more dependent on geologic and seismic factors than on hydrodynamic ones. The concept that seiches are caused by the horizontal acceleration of water by seismic surface waves has been extended in this paper to show that the distribution of seiches is related to the amplitude distribution of short-period seismic surface waves. These waves have their greatest horizontal acceleration when their periods range from 5 to 15 seconds. Similarly, the water bodies on which seiches were recorded have low-order modes whose periods of oscillation also range from 5 to 15 seconds.

Several factors seem to control the distribution of seiches. The most important is variations of thickness of low-rigidity sediments. This factor caused the abundance of seiches in the Gulf Coast area and along the edge of sedimentary overlaps. Major tectonic features such as thrust faults, basins, arches, and domes seem to control seismic waves and thus affect the distribution of seiches. Lateral refraction of seismic surface waves due to variations in local phase-velocity values was responsible for increase in seiche density in certain areas. For example, the Rocky Mountains provided a wave guide along which seiches were more numerous than in areas to either side. In North America, neither direction nor distance from the epicenter had any apparent effect on the distribution of seiches.

Where seismic surface waves propagated into an area with thicker sediment, the horizontal acceleration increased about in proportion to the increasing thickness of the sediment. In the Mississippi Embayment however, where the waves emerged from high rigidity crust into the sediment, the horizontal acceleration increased near the edge of the embayment but decreased in the central part and formed a shadow zone.

Because both seiches and seismic intensity depend on the horizontal acceleration from surface waves, the distribution of seiches may be used to map the seismic intensity that can be expected from future local earthquakes.

First posted October 17, 2012
Revised August 21, 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:

McGarr, A., and Vorhis, R.C., 1968, Seismic seiches from the March 1964 Alaska earthquake: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 544–E, 43 p., 1 sheet, scale 1:5,000,000,




General Theoretical Background

Location and Nature of Seiches

Interpretation of Seiches Distribution

Conclusions and Recommendations


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