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Historic Reports Reissued for Great Alaska Quake 50th Anniversary
Released: 3/18/2014 2:00:00 PM

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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Thumbnails of the professional papers.ANCHORAGE, AlaskaTo commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the largest earthquake ever recorded in the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey has reissued a series of landmark reports covering the results of investigations of the Great Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964. The detailed data gathered immediately after the earthquake continue to inform current studies of ground shaking and tsunami generation during future quakes, leading to better hazard analyses, and more accurate hazard assessments for Alaskan communities. 

The set of 28 volumes, organized in a series of six Professional Papers, is one of the most complete and comprehensive scientific studies of any earthquake to this day. Geologists today still consult the volumes seeking evidence of what might be expected in the next megathrust earthquake. Using the detailed field data gathered in 1964, scientists can retroactively apply sophisticated seismic and tsunami‐modeling techniques not imagined at the time of the initial field investigations.

Originally published between 1965 and 1970, the reports were revolutionary at the time, providing critical insights to the newly formed theory of plate tectonics. Initially published in less-expensive black and white, the reissued reports now include never-before-seen color Kodachrome photographs taken in the field in 1964 after the earthquake, and are available free online (links below).

Particularly important is Professional Paper 543-I, which provided detailed and critical evidence supporting the newly forming theory of plate tectonics. This paper, authored by USGS Geologist Emeritus George Plafker, showed that the pattern of uplift and subsidence in southern Alaska was only consistent with a giant thrust fault – a “megathrust” – that extends beneath all of southern Alaska. The paper laid out a conceptual framework for how the earth moved during the earthquake, which has been a foundation for the understanding of other megathrust earthquakes around the globe.

Words from the forward to Professional Paper 541 are as striking today as they were 50 years ago.

“In the late afternoon of Friday, March 27, 1964, one of the most violent earthquakes of all time rocked southern Alaska. Suddenly 114 people were killed, thousands were left homeless, more than 50,000 square miles of the State was tilted to new altitudes, and the resulting property damage disrupted the State's economy.”

Beach view from the Alaska earthquake showing uplifted seafloor.
Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Uplifted sea floor at Cape Cleare on Montague Island in Prince William Sound in the area of the greatest recorded tectonic uplift on land (33 feet). The very gently slopping flat rocky surface with the white coating which lies between the cliffs and the water is about a quarter of a mile wide. The white coating consists of the remains of calcareous marine organisms that were killed by desiccation when the wave-cut surface was lifted above high tide during the earthquake. Figure 11, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 541.


“Within 24 hours the U.S. Geological Survey had a team of three geologists in Alaska to begin a reconnaissance survey, and they were but the vanguard of many who arrived to conduct scientific and engineering investigations and to advise on the reconstruction effort.”

As the anniversary approaches, many educational and historic public events are planned. Check the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami 50th Anniversary website for an up to date schedule and additional resources, including links to all the reissued USGS Professional Papers.

USGS Professional Papers 541 - 546 – The Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964: 

PP 541: Investigations and Reconstruction

PP 542: Effects on Communities (Volumes A-G)

PP 543: Regional Effects (Volumes A-J)

PP 544: Effects on Hydrologic Regimen (Volumes A-E)

PP 545: Effects on Transportation, Communications, and Utilities (Volumes A-D)

PP 546: Lessons and Conclusions

Photo of a wood plank driven through a tire as a result of a surge wave.
Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Indication of the violence of the surge waves that struck Whittier: man holds mounted ten-ply tire through which a 2 by 6-inch plank of wood has been driven by a wave. Figure 31, U.S. Geological SurveyProfessional paper 541; Figure 20 (black and white), U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 542-B.

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