March 27 – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On

Today’s Factismal: The strongest earthquake in North American history took place in Alaska on March 27, 1964.

When it comes to earthquakes, California gets all of the press (and the bad movies). Part of that is because California was home to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which helped to spur modern scientific research. Part of that is because California is a heavily populated state that is destined to have another large earthquake sometime in the next thirty years. And part of that is because California is the only state to have televised an earthquake live on national television.

Thirty days worth of earthquakes (image courtesy USGS)

Thirty days worth of earthquakes (image courtesy USGS)

But California isn’t the only place in North America that has earthquakes. All along the Pacific Coast, from Baja California to Oregon to Washington state to the Aleutian islands, earthquakes happen every day. Most of them are very small and do very little damage. But about once a century a “great earthquake” (that is, an earthquake stronger than magnitude 8) happens. And on March 27, 1964, it was Alaska’s turn.

Damage from the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (Image courtesy USGS)

Damage from the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (Image courtesy Alaskan Earthquake Information Center)

For four minutes, the ground shook from the release of a magnitude 9.2 earthquake. Centered near Anchorage, it devastated the area, turning the soil into quicksand and the sea into a raging tsunami that swept far inland and headed out to California, Hawai’i and Japan. Over the next year, more than ten thousand smaller aftershocks would rock the Alaskan coast. Luckily, because Alaska is only sparsely populated, the death toll was low. But over $310 million in damage (more than $2,000 million in 2012 dollars) was done.

Buildings that sank into the ground during the earthquake (Image courtesy USGS)

Buildings that sank into the ground during the earthquake (Image courtesy USGS)

The scariest thing about the Alaskan earthquake is that the same conditions that caused it are also seen in Puget Sound, near Seattle, and along the Oregon coast. In order to understand the dangers of these mega-events and to help predict when they may happen, seismologists need your help. Consider hosting a Quake Catcher Network seismometer at your home, and help them record earthquakes from around the world!
http://qcn.stanford.edu/about-qcn/about-network

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