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Professional Paper 546

The Alaska Earthquake, March 27, 1964

Lessons and Conclusions

By Edwin B. Eckel

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (9 MB)Abstract

One of the greatest earthquakes of all time struck south-central Alaska on March 27, 1964. Strong motion lasted longer than for most recorded earthquakes, and more land surface was dislocated, vertically and horizontally, than by any known previous temblor. Never before were so many effects on earth processes and on the works of man available for study by scientists and engineers over so great an area.

The seismic vibrations, which directly or indirectly caused most of the damage, were but surface manifestations of a great geologic event-the dislocation of a huge segment of the crust along a deeply buried fault whose nature and even exact location are still subjects for speculation. Not only was the land surface tilted by the great tectonic event beneath it, with resultant seismic sea waves that traversed the entire Pacific, but an enormous mass of land and sea floor moved several tens of feet horizontally toward the Gulf of Alaska.

Downslope mass movements of rock, earth, and snow were initiated. Subaqueous slides along lake shores and seacoasts, near-horizontal movements of mobilized soil (“landspreading”), and giant translatory slides in sensitive clay did the most damage and provided the most new knowledge as to the origin, mechanics, and possible means of control or avoidance of such movements. The slopes of most of the deltas that slid in 1964, and that produced destructive local waves, are still as steep or steeper than they were before the earthquake and hence would be unstable or metastable in the event of another great earthquake. Rockslide avalanches provided new evidence that such masses may travel on cushions of compressed air, but a widely held theory that glaciers surge after an earthquake has not been substantiated.

Innumerable ground fissures, many of them marked by copious emissions of water, caused much damage in towns and along transportation routes. Vibration also consolidated loose granular materials. In some coastal areas, local subsidence was superimposed on regional tectonic subsidence to heighten the flooding damage. Ground and surface waters were measurably affected by the earthquake, not only in Alaska but throughout the world.

Expectably, local geologic conditions largely controlled the extent of structural damage, whether caused directly by seismic vibrations or by secondary effects such as those just described. Intensity was greatest in areas underlain by thick saturated unconsolidated deposits, least on indurated bedrock or permanently frozen ground, and intermediate on coarse well-drained gravel, on morainal deposits, or on moderately indurated sedimentary rocks.

Local and even regional geology also controlled the distribution and extent of the earthquake's effects on hydrologic systems. In the conterminous United States, for example, seiches in wells and bodies of surface water were controlled by geologic structures of regional dimension.

Devastating as the earthquake was, it had many long-term beneficial effects. Many of these were socioeconomic or engineering in nature; others were of scientific value. Much new and corroborative basic geologic and hydrologic information was accumulated in the course of the earthquake studies, and many new or improved investigative techniques were developed. Chief among these, perhaps, were the recognition that lakes can be used as giant tiltmeters, the refinement of methods for measuring land-level changes by observing displacements of barnacles and other sessile organisms, and the relating of hydrology to seismology by worldwide study of hydroseisms in surface-water bodies and in wells.

The geologic and hydrologic lessons learned from studies of the Alaska earthquake also lead directly to better definition of the research needed to further our understanding of earthquakes and of how to avoid or lessen the effects of future ones. Research is needed on the origins and mechanisms of earthquakes, on crustal structure, and on the generation of tsunamis and local waves. Better earthquake-hazard maps, based on improved knowledge of regional geology, fault behavior, and earthquake mechanisms, are needed for 'the entire country. Their preparation will require the close collaboration of engineers, seismologists, and geologists. Geologic maps of all inhabited places in earthquake-prone parts of the country are also needed by city planners and others, because the direct relationship between local geology and potential earthquake damage is now well understood.

Improved and enlarged nets of earthquake-sensing instruments, sited in relation to known geology, are needed, as are many more geodetic and hydrographic measurements.

Every large earthquake, wherever located, should be regarded as a full-scale laboratory experiment whose study can give scientific and engineering information unobtainable from any other source. Plans must be made before the event to insure staffing, funding, and coordination of effort for the scientific and engineering study of future earthquakes. Advice of earth scientists and engineers should be used in the decision-making processes involved in reconstruction after any future disastrous earthquake, as was done after the Alaska earthquake. The volume closes with a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index to the entire series of U.S. Geological Survey Professional Papers 541–546.

This is the last in a series of six reports that the U.S. Geological Survey published on the results of a comprehensive geologic study that began, as a reconnaissance survey, within 24 hours after the March 27, 1964, Magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake and extended, as detailed investigations, through several field seasons. The 1964 Great Alaska earthquake was the largest earthquake in the U.S. since 1700. Professional Paper 546, in 1 part, describes Lessons and Conclusions.

The Alaska Earthquake Professional Papers

The U.S. Geological Survey published the results of investigations of the Alaska earthquake of March 27, 1964, in a series of six Professional Papers.

Professional Paper 541 is an introduction to the story of a great earthquake—its geologic setting and effects, the field investigations, and the public and private reconstruction efforts.

Professional Paper 542 describes the effects of the earthquake on Alaskan communities.

Professional Paper 543 describes the earthquake’s regional effects.

Professional Paper 544 describes the effects of the earthquake on the hydrologic regimen.

Professional Paper 545 describes the effects of the earthquake on transportation, communications, and utilities.

■ Professional Paper 546 is a summary of what was learned from a great earthquake about the bearing of geologic and hydrologic conditions on its effects, and about the scientific investigations needed to prepare for future earthquakes (this paper).

First posted March 20, 2007
Revised August 29, 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:

Eckel, E.B., 1970, The Alaska Earthquake, March 27, 1964—lessons and conclusions: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 546, 57 p.,





Effects on the Physical Environment

Earthquake Effects, Geology and Damage

Beneficial Effects of the Earthquake


Selected Bibliography


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