Looking Back At The Most Powerful Earthquake Ever To Strike North America

Jul 26, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 2:22 pm
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On a Friday afternoon in 1964, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, noticed something peculiar. A raven was trying to land on a light pole that was swaying so violently that the bird couldn't take hold. It was the beginning of the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America. It altered the landscape of some parts of the state and killed 131 people, some as far away as California, as the quake generated deadly tidal waves.

Our guest, New York Times science writer Henry Fountain, has a new book about the dramatic and deadly impact of the quake and about a geologist whose investigation of its causes deepened our understanding of movements below the Earth's surface. Henry Fountain has been reporter and editor at the Times for two decades. His writing now focuses on climate change.

He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his book "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." It will be published next month.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Henry Fountain, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why don't we begin by just getting a sense of the scale of this disaster? How did the power of this earthquake compare, say, to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the one that damaged that nuclear reactor in Japan in 2011?

HENRY FOUNTAIN: Sure. Well, it was a heck of an earthquake. It was the second-most powerful ever recorded, you know, in recorded history - or since they've been recording earthquakes with instruments. It was originally thought to be about the same power as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But in retrospect - or shortly thereafter, it was determined it was much, much more powerful.

You know, a rough indication is how long the ground shakes for. And in the San Francisco earthquake, there was a foreshock at first that shook for about 20 seconds. And then the main shocks shook for something like 40 or 45 seconds. So that's about a minute. In Alaska, the ground shook for about 4.5 minutes, which is a really, really long time.

As compared to the Japanese earthquake, the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, the one that killed, I think, about 17,000 people and - you know, it led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster - that one was slightly less powerful.

DAVIES: This quake came late on a Friday afternoon. Right? March 27 - technically spring but plenty of snow still around. And in the book, we experience the quake through the eyes of some people who lived through it. One of them is a woman named Christine Madson. Tell us who she was, where she was.

FOUNTAIN: Chris Madson was a schoolteacher in a little native village by the name of Chenega on an island of the same name in Prince William Sound. She was from Long Beach, Calif. And she'd graduated from college in California and then decided she wanted to see the world. And she'd got a job working in a one-room schoolhouse in Chenega. Chenega has about 70 people, and she lived in an apartment right next door.

DAVIES: When the quake strikes, it's Friday afternoon, and she happens to be up at the top of the hill of this village, where the schoolhouse is. What does she see? What does she experience?

FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, she sees something that - like everybody who experienced this earthquake, she sees something that she never could get out of her mind. She never forgot about it. She turned around. She felt the ground shaking. You know, like everybody else, she saw trees whipping back and forth, almost like windshield wipers. She turned around and looked out over the water.

So Chenega was on a little cove, a little bay. And it seemed like a vacuum cleaner had come along and sucked all the water out of the little cove. And so she looked back, and there was, in place of rippling water, there was just seafloor. She couldn't figure out what was going on. She was absolutely stunned by it.

DAVIES: Right. And you describe a number of people. I mean, the Earth heaving like this is an unreal experience. And you mentioned that when she was watching these spruce trees swaying, they weren't swaying from the top.

FOUNTAIN: No. It was like a metronome or a windshield wiper. They were literally sort of flapping back-and-forth. A lot of people recall that the actual - the top branches of the trees would actually touch the ground, it swayed so much. The reason they saw that is because the ground was rippling like a body of water, like waves rolling through a body of water, except this was waves rolling through Earth.

And so you'd have crests and troughs. And when a wave rolled through and a crest rolled through and there was a tree there, it would, you know, it would bend either way, depending as it approached the crest or after the crest. So you know, it was surreal for everybody who saw it.

DAVIES: What one measure of the power of this event was - you described there's a mountain near Sherman Glacier. What happened there?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, it was renamed afterwards, Shattered Peak, because the peak of the mountain literally shattered in the quake. There was so much rolling and rollicking of the land. And the top, I think, roughly several thousand feet of this peak broke off, started sliding down the mountain. It turned into this gigantic debris slide, rock slide. It had a sort of cushion of air under it, so the friction was minimal. So it reached speeds estimated afterwards to be greater than 200 miles an hour - huge volume, you know, millions of cubic yards of debris coming down this mountainside.

At the bottom of the mountain was Sherman Glacier, one of many glaciers in this part of Alaska. This is the Chugach range. And it hit the glacier. It spread out over it for a distance of a couple of miles and a couple of miles wide and about 4 feet thick. And basically just - it covered the glacier like frosting on a cake. And it's still there. You can still see it.

DAVIES: Fifty years later.

FOUNTAIN: Fifty years later, yeah.

DAVIES: Wow. So this teacher, Chris Madson, is at the top of this hill where this little village of Chenega is on this island, and the earth shakes. She sees the cove = that's the body of water there - literally empty. But then, the wave comes. What does she see?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, then she sees - just a few minutes later, actually - the ground is still shaking at this point. I said before the ground shook for 4 or 4.5, 5 minutes, depending on whose memories you're talking about. But about 3 minutes into this shaking, after the cove is emptied of water, all of a sudden, a big wave of water comes into the cove, and it swamps the village.

It swamps the people who are down - the unfortunate people who are down in the village. There were some kids playing on the beach because it was low tide to begin with. There was - a lot of kids were down there chasing after birds, doing stuff kids do after school. And then the adults in the village were just doing normal things - making dinner, visiting with friends.

One woman was thinking of taking a bath - you know, all sorts of stuff - plain, ordinary stuff. And all of a sudden, they're confronted with this wall of water, a tidal wave, which is what they referred to it at the time. You know, obviously, these days, we call them tsunamis. But either way, it was, you know, a horrific wall of water that swamped the village and all the little homes, as well.

DAVIES: And what did it do to the village and the people?

FOUNTAIN: Well, it and another one that came later both destroyed every house except for one, swept people away. The people, you know, who could, ran up the hill to the schoolhouse because that was the highest terrain in the village. So generally, the most able-bodied people, the sort of the younger adults, were able to scramble up the hill in time to survive.

But a lot of the kids didn't survive. And a lot of the older people in the village were swept away as well. But most of the people were never found again. Most of the bodies were never found again. In all, I think 23 people in the village died. So 23 out of about 70 lost their lives.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Henry Fountain. His new book is "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Henry Fountain. He covers climate change for The New York Times. He has a new book about the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, the largest quake ever recorded in North America. It's called "The Great Quake."

One of the places that took it the worst in this disaster was Valdez, a name people know because of the Exxon Valdez disaster years later. It was a town at the end of a fjord. Just describe the town at the time.

FOUNTAIN: Sure. It was basically the end of a line. There was a road from Anchorage that ended in Valdez. And in the '60s, it was sort of on a downward cycle. There wasn't much mining anymore. The war kind of wiped that out. There was fishing, but there wasn't that much else. There was about maybe 1,500, 2,000 people living there at that time and they all lived in the little community, which was right on the water's edge.

It was built on sediments that had been washed down from a glacier a couple of miles away. You know, there was a lot of sort of flooding from time to time from these steams and stuff. But generally, it was a fun place to live. There was obviously great scenery nearby. It was spectacular mountains and glaciers and lots of hunting and fishing.

DAVIES: It was a town with no radio station, you said, and no TV service. And...


DAVIES: And one of the things that people did for entertainment was when a ship would come in. And as it happened, the Friday that the quake struck, a ship had just come into harbor. How did that affect this?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, a ship had just come in and, you know, when you say entertainment was when a ship came in, the ship that provided by far the most entertainment was a cargo ship that would come regularly to deliver everything because although there was a road to Valdez, most everything was brought in by ship.

And because nothing much happened in Valdez, when a ship like that came in, two things - one is a lot of the able-bodied adult men, to supplement their income, would work as stevedores or longshoremen down at the docks helping to unload the ship. And number two - because it was kind of exciting because this was in the days before containers. You'd have bulk cargo being hauled off the ship, so people could stand there and watch and, oh, there comes, you know, those car parts I ordered or, you know, here's the food I was looking for.

Just, you know, just curious things, watching people do their work.

DAVIES: So you have this waterfront community where half the town is on the waterfront and a huge vessel is there when this massive earthquake strikes. What happens?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, well, so as I said, Valdez was built on these sediments that were washed down from the glacier, hundreds and hundreds of feet of sediments, which were fine to build buildings on and to have a dock built on, you know, the pilings sunk into the sediments. But when they get shaken, they act like almost like jelly or like water. They turn to water.

The process is known as liquefaction. And so when the earthquake happened and the ground started shaking, the waterfront essentially collapsed into the water. This was a very deep Harbor. It's a fjord, remember. So something like 4,000 feet of the waterfront going back a couple hundred feet just turned to jelly and collapsed. And it took the dock with it. And there were about 25 people on the dock, and they all went with the dock as it disappeared.

They all disappeared literally in a few seconds and were never seen again. The ship itself nearly got, you know, taken down with the dock. It was actually moored to the dock. The ship managed to get free but had to sort of ride this rising sort of bubbling cauldron of water. As the dock and all the sediment slumped, it displaced a lot of water in the harbor.

And that water came up like a rising, you know, mound of water and raised the ship and turned it on a very cockeyed angle so that the stern was sort of sticking way up in the air. And people in the town actually saw the propeller of the ship from their homes. And the ship, you know, managed to somehow survive. When the water started sort of coming out of the town, managed to get free enough and by then, it had righted itself.

And it was able to sort of slowly turn away, miraculously with no real permanent damage to the hull or to the propeller or the propulsion system. But it was a very wild ride for about 10 or 15 minutes.

DAVIES: This is a story about a dramatic event. It's also a story about science and a great leap in our understanding of earthquakes and other things about how the earth moves and changes. The guy at the heart of this story is a geologist named George Plafker. Was he an earthquake expert?

FOUNTAIN: No, far from it. George Plafker was a U.S. Geological Survey geologist. At the time, he had a, you know, Bachelor of Science in geology. He didn't really know anything about earthquakes. What he did know is he knew Alaska. He worked for the Alaska branch of the Geological Survey. And so he would basically go out, he and a partner would get dropped off in a bush plane somewhere and they'd go around and they'd look for rock outcroppings and note the rocks, read the rocks, essentially, with, you know, the rock hammer and a compass and a hand level.

And the goal was simply, as a lot of the Geological Survey's work was, was to figure out what mineral resources there were in Alaska. This was, again, this was a young state. So at the time of the quake, March 27, 1964, the Geological Survey decided immediately, you know, we have to find out what happened with this quake. I mean, this is, like, huge.

Even - you know, they didn't know the specifics. But they knew this was an enormous earthquake. But they didn't really have any seismologists on staff. What they did have was they had George and a couple of other Alaska branch people who were comfortable and quite able to get around Alaska, knew people, knew how to survive in the country.

They weren't afraid of bears. They could be out on their own for a week or two without any kind of worry. So they sent George and two other geologists, Arthur Grantz and Reuben Kachadoorian, to Anchorage the day after the quake.

DAVIES: This is also a story about the science of earthquakes and our understanding of what was happening. And I wonder if you could just sort of summarize what the scientific thinking was in the 1960s about what kind of movements there were in the earth that caused earthquakes and other phenomena. What was the debate?

FOUNTAIN: Well, there were two basic ways of thinking about this - how the structure of the Earth moved or didn't move. There were people who believed in this idea of what was then called plate tectonics, of - that there was magma coming out of ridges in the Earth under the oceans and forming new ocean floor and sort of spreading out and reaching the continents tens of millions of years later - this all happened very slowly - and then sort of disappearing under the continents and causing earthquakes.

These people were known as the mobilists (ph) because they believed that the continents moved and the ocean floors moved. There were a lot of very prominent scientists who, for one reason or another, found this hard to believe. They were generally known as the stablists (ph). They thought the continents were where they'd been always, that they didn't move.

They might have believed that ocean floor was created. But they thought that what was happening is the Earth itself was getting slightly bigger as this oceanic crust was created. So there were really two schools of thought in the mid-'60s. And it was a big, big debate. It's hard to believe now because plate tectonics is pretty much universally accepted. But 1964, a lot of very, very smart people didn't believe it.

DAVIES: So George Plafker goes to Alaska where he knows the terrain and just spends a lot of time gathering observations. What does he do? What does it tell him?

FOUNTAIN: So he spent the summer surveying the Sound. The work that he did, the surveying work, was based on - largely on the habits of a particular marine creature, a barnacle, that happens to settle on rocks at a certain position relating to the tide. And so they used what they referred to as the barnacle line to determine whether the land had risen up or had sunk down.

And if you think about it, so if these barnacles settle in an area that's, say, about a foot below the high tide, and they settle there because they're under water some of the time, which is how they feed, and yet they're not under water all of the time, which would subject them to predation more. You know, they'd get eaten more.

So they settle in pretty much, you know, if you see this line of barnacles, you know, OK, the high tide is a foot above there. And based on the position of the barnacles after the quake, he could determine whether the land rose up or fell down. He and several others spent a couple of months basically surveying the entire coastline and determined, as I mentioned before, that a huge area of Prince William Sound actually rose up during the quake.

And it rose anything from, you know, a couple of feet to 35 feet or more. And then other parts towards Anchorage subsided during the quake. That, to him, was some kind of major indicator of the mechanism of this earthquake.

DAVIES: Right. You know, and I'll just note to the audience, the descriptions of the science here are really interesting in the book. And in the end, he writes a paper, which kind of puts him up against geophysicists who have a lot more, you know, heavyweight reputations in this area. He turns out to be right. And it's now acknowledged that his understanding of this earthquake really got at what happened.

What was it that he - that came out of this that gives us an ongoing understanding of what causes these things?

FOUNTAIN: So George, he basically figured out that - the way I like to put it is the only way you could understand how this earthquake happened is if you accept the idea of plate tectonics, if you accept the idea that at these margins, as I was - continental margins, as I was talking about, that the oceanic crust slides down underneath the continental crust, subducts is the term.

So his paper, which was published in 1965 in the journal Science, very calmly kind of put forth his reasoning and just as calmly, kind of destroyed the reasoning of the other people. And it was accepted. And generally, it took a while for the scientific community to really understand what he'd written. But it was, you know, it didn't - like, it wasn't the eureka moment that led to plate tectonics being a universally accepted theory, which it is today.

But it was part of the confirmation process of plate tectonics. The only way you could understand this earthquake is to accept the idea that, you know, the Earth's structure, the top parts of the earth are - consist of these plates that move in relation to each other.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with New York Times science writer Henry Fountain about his new book "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." They'll talk more about the quake and about covering climate change for The Times after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with New York Times science writer Henry Fountain about his new book "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." It's about the 1964 quake in Alaska that generated tidal waves and killed 131 people, some as far away as California.

It also changed our understanding of what causes earthquakes.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I wondered as people described their experiences of the earthquake itself was what it sounded like. What'd it sound like?

FOUNTAIN: Well, it's interesting. I, you know, I first learned about this earthquake in college when a friend of mine who collected old recordings - he was kind of an eccentric guy. He collected old recordings, and he played for me one day a recording of a person in Anchorage who just happened to have a tape recorder going when the quake hit. He might have been working at a radio station. I'm not sure. At any rate, it was amazing. It sounded like a freight train was barreling through his living room is the best I can describe it. And that's how it was described by a lot of the survivors that I talked to or the accounts of survivors that I read - huge booming sounds, you know, big, almost thunder, freight trains rumbling, deep rumbling.

And then there were a lot of booms that weren't necessarily related to the quake itself but the effects of the quake like landslides, avalanches, lakes breaking up. Everything was frozen at the time. So, you know, lakes would shake and kind of shatter into thick ice, you know, shatter into a lot of pieces.

There was a lot of booming. People - a lot of people thought, you know, Russia had dropped the big one - Soviet Union had dropped the big one. This was the start of World War III. There was a man in the woods in Cordova, which is on Prince William Sound, who was convinced that - he heard all these booms and he was convinced that the Russian navy had a battleship off the coast and was shelling Cordova.

So he hopped into his truck and got his gun and came into town ready to fight off the invaders. So it was loud.

DAVIES: Yeah. Your book is subtitled "How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." So to get us to why this really matters, if we understand that the ocean floor is expanding and what that means is that at the margins, we have these plates that are applying pressure to other plates, maybe, that are part of the continental earth's crust, right?


DAVIES: We've got pressure building in certain places. And it erupted with enormous force in Alaska. Where's the next big danger?

FOUNTAIN: Well, there's danger everywhere. But most people think that the biggest danger, certainly for North American - people living in North America, is off the northwest coast, off the coast of Washington and Oregon where there's a similar situation. There's a plate that's - oceanic plate that's subducting underneath the continent. And forces are building up and someday they'll break, which is what happens in an earthquake.

What makes people think that there's a, you know, a pretty strong likelihood of a major earthquake in that region sometime in the next 50 years or so is that the last one that they've understood happened, happened in 1700. And they've also, through techniques that George Plafker helped to pioneer, have determined that, you know, there have been a succession of major earthquakes in that area every 3-400 years or so.

So it means there are just - it's, like, 300 years ago was the last one. So they're due for another one. It could be very, you know, unlike Alaska of 1964, the Pacific Northwest has a lot of people, a lot of buildings, a lot of corporations, huge corporations. You know, it could be much, much more devastating to both the people and the economy if one were to strike.

DAVIES: So if a big earthquake's coming to the Pacific Northwest in the coming decades, let's say, is there anything we should be doing about it?

FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, the thing to do is to prepare and to - and some communities in the Pacific Northwest are preparing. They've built things like tsunami shelters, which are, you know, higher-elevation structures that are built to withstand shaking and that the townspeople can go to in the event of a tsunami warning. Usually, there's some warning of a tsunami.

I mean, it kind of depends. Obviously, the Chenegans had no warning. But usually there's some warning so there's some chance to flee. So people need to prepare, they need to know where to go in the event of an earthquake. You know, building codes have advanced tremendously. And a lot of Seattle, the buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, just as in other parts of the West and California, certainly.

But, you know, there's a lot of risks, a lot of, you know, it depends how strong it is, it depends on the time of day, depends whether it's high tide or low tide. There's all sorts of sort of unknowns. But the most important thing is to realize that - and I think most people in the Pacific Northwest do realize - they're living in a risky, hazardous area.

DAVIES: You've been writing about climate change for a long time. And you have a recent piece in The New York Times about the fact that melting Arctic Sea ice means there's more shipping in the area and in particular, a 1000-passenger luxury cruise ship that'll be going through the Northwest Passage next month. It'll be escorted by another ship. Explain this.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, the cruise ship is not really designed to operate in polar waters. It's, you know, it was built to cruise the Mediterranean and stuff. And although they don't really expect to run into any ice or other problems, but if they do, they'd want to try to get out of the jam, however possible. The thrust of the story and the reason I wrote the story is because there's really no emergency search and rescue infrastructure in most of the Arctic.

And so that cruise company actually, I mean, the customers are paying a lot of money for it. But they're bringing along this other ship that'll contain emergency rations, a couple of helicopters, other gear to contain an oil spill or whatever and can actually - the other ship can actually maneuver through the ice pretty well so that if this cruise ship does get stuck or has some other problem, it'll have help right there.

And the problem is there's lots of other smaller cruise ships that are heading to the Arctic. There's some cargo ships that are operating in the Arctic now because there's less ice than there used to be. And the fear among people who know this is that it will - eventually, there will be some kind of incident, a grounding of a ship, even something like, you know, a medical emergency on a ship that involves, you know, a bunch of passengers eat a lot of bad food and get really violently sick or whatever.

And there'll be no way to immediately get people to safety because there's no - there's, you know, the U.S. has basically one icebreaker now. There's no - doing, like, a long-range rescue by helicopter would be really difficult and time consuming. So what they do is they rely on other ships in the area to come and help. There's not that many ships, really, in the area, relatively speaking So if there was a problem, you know, a ship, a cargo ship or cruise ship could be stuck for, you know, a couple of days or longer up in the High Arctic.

And that's why this particular cruise line decided to take its own help along.

DAVIES: Right. And if they were stuck in the High Arctic in, you know, for days, the danger would be the temperatures or drifting into ice or...

FOUNTAIN: It depends on the situation. But certainly, I mean, one of the ironies of climate change in the Arctic, you know, the Arctic is - one of the reasons I'm interested in the Arctic is that it's warming much faster than any other part of the planet. So you do have less sea ice. And you have - you know, it thins out quite a bit in the summertime, and it breaks up. And - but because there's less and it's sort of broken up, it tends to shift around a lot. And so you could have - you know, you could actually be perfectly fine one day as, say, a cruise ship sort of, you know, moored off an island in the Canadian arctic. And then the winds change, and all of a sudden you've got a lot of pack ice basically hemming you in. And you can't get out.

So it just - it kind of depends. There's other - there's - a lot of the Arctic is not particularly well-charted. And it wouldn't be out of the question for a ship to run aground up there. And once you run aground, who knows? A storm comes, you could break in two. You could founder. You could sink. You know, every ship carries some amount of fuel oil. And most cargo ships carry this very, very heavy fuel oil that's almost like sludge. And if that were to spill as a ship broke up, it would create an oil spill - not as bad as, say, the Exxon Valdez, but a significant oil spill that would be next to impossible to clean up.

DAVIES: You know, you've been writing about climate change for a long time. And this is an interesting time in the United States, to say the least. You know, President Trump has - wants to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Where do you think we are now as a nation in dealing with this issue?

FOUNTAIN: Well, I think it could be a case, as has been happening with a lot of other issues, is where the public is sort of ahead of the political leadership in a lot of ways. The public - you know, if you look at surveys, you know, 70 percent of Americans think climate change is really happening and we need to do something about it. And so - whereas the federal government under the Trump administration has determined that it's not a problem, essentially. A lot of people, a lot of constituents, think it is.

And the people - the political leaders, that are closest to those constituents - the mayors, the governors, the local leaders - are more in tune with those constituents. And so immediately after Paris, you saw - after Trump decided to pull out of Paris, you saw a lot of governors, a lot of mayors announcing that they would hold - you know, they would do their best to keep the United States' pledge intact. And that's really because they're responding to what they see from the people that they lead in their communities.

DAVIES: And how much difference can you make at the state and local level when the federal government's going in a different direction?

FOUNTAIN: You actually can make quite a lot because, you know, in terms of what the federal government actually controls, in terms of what produces emissions - I mean, obviously things like fuel regulations, mileage standards for cars is a big deal. And, you know, the Clean Power Plan was a big deal. But there's lots of things that communities can do.

I talked to the mayor of Salt Lake City at the time who, you know, had just signed a contract with the local utility that all the power coming into Salt Lake City would be from renewable sources. So they have a lot of leverage. They can get a lot done. They're committed. They seem to be committed to getting a lot done because, as I said, most of the people that they lead, you know, the majority think, yeah, this is a real - this is a problem. And we got to do something about it.

DAVIES: Well, Henry Fountain, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

FOUNTAIN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Henry Fountain spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior news reporter. Fountain is the author of the new book "The Great Quake: How The Biggest Earthquake In North America Changed Our Understanding Of The Planet." And he's a science writer for The New York Times. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new biography of Chester Himes, who wrote hard-boiled stories featuring black detectives. This is FRESH AIR.