The big quake: New book explains how 1964 reshaped Alaska and the scientific world

Half a century ago, North America's most powerful recorded earthquake ripped through Alaska. The 9.2-magnitude quake transformed Alaska's landscape. It also transformed modern understanding of the geology and the way the planet works.

Now a new book, "The Great Quake," blends personal stories of Alaskans who survived the 1964 disaster with an explanation of the scientific discoveries that resulted from it.

The book, by longtime New York Times science writer Henry Fountain, describes the experiences of those who witnessed the quake and its significance to science. The Alaska earthquake settled what, until then, was a fierce scientific debate. It confirmed the theory of plate tectonics and showed what happens when one geologic plate slips under another in what is commonly referred to as a "subduction" event, the most powerful of all types of quakes.

In a telephone interview, Fountain explained how significant the earthquake was to people's lives and to science.

What inspired the book?

Fountain said he has been interested in the Alaska earthquake since he was in college, when he heard a recording of an Anchorage radio station's broadcast during the disaster. "I just remember thinking, wow, this is quite an earthquake, the noise and the sort of panic in the person's voice," he said.

He launched the book project after writing a Times story about the quake's 50th anniversary — and that story was triggered by a powerful 2014 earthquake in Chile.


For many people in the U.S., the 1964 Alaska earthquake is either a distant memory — or not even a memory, Fountain said. It was decades ago, it was in far-off Alaska and the death toll of 131, though tragic, was perhaps not enough to get attention in the modern era, he said.

"While it made front-page news in 1964, it didn't linger as front-page news," he said. "A lot of people aren't aware of this earthquake. It's kind of been forgotten unless, obviously, you live in Alaska. It's never been forgotten in Alaska, as far as I know."

What is the scientific significance?

Geologist George Plafker, probably the main hero of the book, was a proponent of the plate-tectonics theory, which had not yet been formally accepted. A U.S. Geological Survey geologist who was assigned to Alaska in almost a fluke — a history explained in the book — Plafker wound up studying the quake in detail and confirmed plate tectonics, putting to rest the opposing theory that the continents were fixed in place.

Plafker made hundreds of measurements in the quake zone, marking spots in Prince William Sound where the land rose and in Cook Inlet where it dropped. "The only way you could understand that kind of a fault is if you accept this idea of subduction, that the oceanic crust is diving at a shallow angle underneath the continental crust," Fountain said. "George figured out the only way you could understand this earthquake is you have to accept the idea that plate tectonics is a real thing."

Until then, the debate between "mobilists" like Plafker and "stablists" who rejected the idea of plate tectonics had divided scientists, Fountain said.

"In 1964, there were still a lot of people who just didn't believe it. And it was a serious scientific debate involving prominent scientists on both sides," Fountain said. Was plate tectonics the 1960s equivalent of today's climate science? "Not really, because with climate change you have all the scientists on one side," he said.

How did you research and write the book?

Fountain spent two months in Alaska. It was actually his first trip to the state. He talked to quake survivors here and elsewhere and combed through written accounts and museum collections.

He toured Prince William Sound with Plafker and Peter Haeussler, a USGS geologist based in Anchorage. He talked to people in Anchorage, Prince William Sound and elsewhere.

In Prince William Sound, Fountain saw one of the important spots where Plafker took measurements after the quake — a line of barnacles that, prior to 1964, had been in the intertidal zone. After the quake thrust the land upward, the remnant barnacles were well above the high-tide line.

What was it like spending time with Plafker?

"He's amazing. He's now 88. He still goes to the USGS office in Menlo Park, California, pretty much every day. He's got core samples in the core lab there. He's working on a paper about the time frame of large megathrust earthquakes in that part of Alaska over the last 3,000 years through analyzing core samples. And he's tireless."

When Fountain was with him in Prince William Sound, they hiked together up slopes. "He was just raring to go." Fountain helped the veteran geologist make measurements, working as a de facto assistant. "I felt like I got an education in geology from him — a fantastic experience."

Capturing poignant memories

The book recounts not just the quake and the science around it and the devastation it wrought but also life in Alaska in the middle of the 20th century, when statehood was new and technology was sparse.

His research revealed some interesting details: Valdez, in those pre-television days, was filled with voracious readers; more library books were checked out, per capita, than in any Alaska city. "You find little nuggets of information," Fountain said.


Then as now, Valdez and other small Alaska towns were basketball-crazed. The popular high school basketball coach, James Growden, died in the quake along with his two preschool-aged sons. They were among the locals who had gathered to watch a cargo ship unload when the quake struck and the sea swallowed the dock on which they were standing.

In Chenega, an Alutiiq village that was mostly wiped off the map by the tsunami, the school and the knoll above it were the safest places to be. The Friday of the quake, the local teacher was preparing for Friday movie night, a school event that drew the whole village. After the tsunami hit, survivors huddled on the hill above the school, without even radio contact with the outside world.

Even in Anchorage, then as now Alaska's metropolis, services and conveniences lagged behind those in the rest of the country. Anchorage did have TV, albeit with shows on physical tape delivered about a week after broadcast in the Lower 48. At the time of the quake, many of the kids were watching "Fireball XL," a cheesy kids' sci-fi show of the era, a detail Fountain said he learned from survivors, though it did not make the book.

Fountain, who was 10 in 1964, was in a different world then. "I grew up in Westchester County, New York, where we had everything," he said.

What do you want people to learn from the book?

Fountain said he wants readers to understand "how big this event was."

"It was an amazingly powerful event, unlike any that North America has ever seen," he said. "I also really hope people get a sense of George Plafker and the work he did and in a broader way, the work that scientists do. … There's a pretty strong anti-science feeling among some parts of society, some politicians and others, so I hope this book celebrates both George's work and the work that scientists do."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of earthquake victim James Growden.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.