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A pair of books explores American earthquakes, past and future

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet

Henry Fountain
Crown,
2017
296 pp.
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Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake

Kathryn Miles
Dutton
2017
368 pp.
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On 27 March 1964, a magnitude (M) 9.2 earthquake—the second strongest in recorded history—occurred near Prince William Sound in southern Alaska. The event produced a tsunami, induced numerous landslides, and liquefied soils. The loss of life was relatively small—143 fatalities—but, as Henry Fountain reveals in The Great Quake, the disaster’s impact still looms large.

The book engagingly recounts life in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, which came to be known as the “Great Alaskan earthquake” or, alternatively, the “Good Friday earthquake,” and explores the changes in the lives of individuals, villages, and cities touched by it. Chenega, for example, a tiny village located on the sound’s Chenega Island, figures prominently in the narrative. It was completely destroyed by the quake, which also killed a third of the community; the villagers who survived fled and never returned.

The book also describes the quake’s role in the career of George Plafker, the geologist whose fieldwork and analysis would help ultimately confirm the theory of plate tectonics. Fountain describes how, in the months following the earthquake, Plafker and colleagues cruised the Alaskan shoreline, measuring the distance between sea level and a narrow band of northern acorn barnacles. Barnacles, he explains, tend to settle near the tidal level of mean high water. After the quake, when the line of barnacles was observed above sea level, the researchers inferred that the ground had been uplifted. When it was below sea level, they surmised that the ground had subsided. The spatial distribution of uplift and subsidence, along with additional data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey, allowed Plafker to correctly infer that the earthquake was produced by a low-angle thrust fault associated with the subduction of ocean crust below the continental margin.

The detective work involved in reconstructing land movements produced by an earthquake is itself a compelling tale, but interwoven throughout The Great Quake are more personal accounts of this and other notable earthquakes. Fountain relates, for example, the amazing story of how Howard Ulrich, who was anchored in a small fishing boat in Lituya Bay, somehow navigated up and over an enormous wave—the highest ever documented run-up of a tsunami at 524 m above sea level—after a landslide caused by an earthquake in 1958. Ulrich “looked down on the shore and thought that if the wave broke he’d end up in the treetops,” writes Fountain. “But it didn’t break, and instead he rode up and over the crest.”

The M 5.8 earthquake that shook western Montana just weeks ago is a reminder that U.S. earthquakes are not limited to the “ring of fire.” In Kathryn Miles’s book Quakeland, she recounts an M 7.5 1959 earthquake that occurred in this same region. The Hebgen Lake earthquake, as it is known, produced the nation’s largest recorded rock slide—73 million metric tons—and caused at least 28 fatalities. Although tragic, the quake was neither the most costly nor the most deadly. But, as Miles points out, it forces us to confront the fact that while our knowledge of earthquake hazard has evolved, in many cases our infrastructure has not.

THE U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Good Friday earthquake caused major structural damage in Anchorage and other parts of Alaska in 1964.

Quakeland offers a guided tour of seismic hazards throughout the United States. In addition to covering earthquake hazards in the western states, Miles provides an accessible overview of midplate seismicity in regions such as New Madrid and New York City. She also discusses seismicity produced by, for example, fracking and mining.

Miles describes how our built environment, including dams, bridges, and buildings, can (or cannot) withstand earthquakes and their associated secondary hazards. The experts she interviews acknowledge that improving our resilience can be expensive, but the consequences for not doing so are often far more costly.

Improved construction practices precipitated by past disasters, as well as technological advances, are on the rise. But, while more seismically active areas are acting to improve resilience, Miles makes it clear that other regions of the United States could benefit from similar actions. “We just have no consciousness towards earthquakes in the eastern United States,” geophysicist Charles Merguerian tells her at one point. “And that’s a big mistake.”

These books are both accessible accounts that complement one another. Readers interested in the history of plate tectonics, seismic risk, and our society’s vulnerability would likely enjoy them both.

About the author

The reviewer is at NatCatRisk, LLC, Garrett Park, MD 20896, USA.