The 1964 Alaska Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

On the afternoon of March 27, 1964, the serene beauty of Alaska was shattered by an event of unimaginable force. It was Good Friday, a day when many were preparing for the upcoming Easter weekend, unaware that nature had other plans. At 5:36 PM, the earth began to tremble, and what followed was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in human history. The ground beneath southern Alaska ripped and roared for 4.5 minutes, leaving a trail of devastation, altering landscapes, and fundamentally changing the lives of Alaskans. This is the story of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, a cataclysmic event that not only reshaped the physical world but also our understanding of it.

As the earth quieted, the aftermath was a stark testament to the quake's ferocity. Towns were decimated, landscapes were forever altered, and the people of Alaska were left to reckon with the immediate and long-lasting impacts of this disaster. The tragedy of lives lost and communities uprooted was accompanied by remarkable acts of bravery, resilience, and solidarity. Moreover, this calamity would usher in a new era of scientific discovery, providing critical insights into the mechanics of our planet.

This narrative not only explores the immediate effects and the resilient response of the Alaskan people but also delves into the scientific revelations the earthquake triggered. From the profound impact on geology and seismology to the advancements in earthquake preparedness and building standards, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake stands as a pivotal moment in our ongoing dialogue with the earth's mysterious and powerful nature.

The 1964 Alaska Earthquake, also known as the Great Alaskan Earthquake, remains one of the most powerful and devastating natural disasters in North American history. Occurring on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, it struck the Prince William Sound region of Alaska with a magnitude of 9.2. This event not only changed the landscape and communities of Alaska but also transformed our understanding of plate tectonics and earthquake science.

The Magnitude of Disaster

At 5:36 PM local time, the earth beneath southern Alaska began to tremble. Lasting for approximately 4.5 minutes, the quake was so powerful it was felt across Alaska, parts of western Yukon Territory, and British Columbia, Canada. The earthquake's magnitude of 9.2 makes it the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded worldwide, surpassed only by the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile.

Impact and Aftermath

The immediate effects of the earthquake were catastrophic. Ground fissures, collapsing structures, and tsunamis ravaging the coastline resulted in the loss of 131 lives. The tsunamis generated by the quake were not confined to Alaska; they propagated across the Pacific, causing damage as far away as California, Hawaii, and Japan. In Valdez, the entire waterfront was swept away by a massive wave. Port towns like Seward and Kodiak were devastated by waves that reached up to 30 feet in height.

Economically, the disaster inflicted severe damage. Estimates of the cost varied, but the toll on infrastructure like roads, ports, and towns was immense, setting development back by years. Yet, it was the human impact that was most profound, with communities disrupted, homes lost, and lives forever altered.

Scientific Insights

Beyond its immediate devastation, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake had a profound impact on the field of geology and seismology. It offered unprecedented insight into the mechanisms of plate tectonics and subduction zones. The quake was caused by the Pacific Plate grinding underneath the North American Plate, a process known as subduction, which released a tremendous amount of energy.

One of the most significant scientific outcomes of the earthquake was the confirmation of the theory of plate tectonics. This theory, which was still being debated at the time, describes the movement of the Earth's lithospheric plates. The patterns of aftershocks and the measured displacements of the ground surface provided clear evidence of these geological processes at work.

The event also led to the development of the National Earthquake Information Center and the Tsunami Warning System, aiming to provide timely warnings to prevent such high casualties in future seismic events.

Legacy and Preparedness

The legacy of the 1964 Alaska Earthquake extends beyond its physical and scientific impacts. It spurred improvements in earthquake preparedness, building codes, and emergency response strategies. Alaska and other regions prone to seismic activity have since implemented stricter building standards to withstand earthquakes. Communities now participate in regular drills, and awareness campaigns emphasize the importance of preparedness.

Moreover, the disaster highlighted the need for comprehensive disaster management and recovery plans. Efforts to rebuild affected communities were undertaken with the future in mind, ensuring that homes and infrastructure were more resilient against natural disasters.


The 1964 Alaska Earthquake was a defining moment in both the history of Alaska and the field of earthquake science. Its immense power and the subsequent tsunamis underscore the formidable forces of nature that can reshape landscapes and communities in moments. However, the earthquake's legacy is also one of learning and resilience. It taught valuable lessons about the Earth's geology, led to significant advancements in earthquake preparedness and building standards, and reminded us of the importance of community and cooperation in the face of natural disasters.

As we reflect on the events of March 27, 1964, we are reminded of the power of nature and the resilience of humanity. The Great Alaskan Earthquake serves as a stark reminder of our vulnerability to natural disasters and the importance of preparedness to mitigate their impact. Through education, scientific advancement, and community resilience, we can hope to face future challenges with greater assurance and less loss.

So what can we do to get better prepared?


A kit is not a safety blanket you just purchase to make yourself feel better, it is an important investment in your household’s safety and preparedness. Not all emergency kits are created equal, and we highly recommend using the Province of BC and Government of Canada resources when building or buying a kit. We are also pleased to offer Earthquake Kits that developed to meet the government requirements for emergency preparedness. Visit our Gov BC Earthquake Kit product page to view the contents of our kits and feel free to use this as a guideline for assembling your own. What’s important to us is not that you buy a kit from us, but that every household have a kit at the ready in case something unexpected should occur.


The Province of BC and the Federal Government have made huge strides in this area in recent years implementing an Emergency Notifications network through mobile carriers and testing it to great success levels. This can provide seconds to even minutes of advanced notice prior to an earthquake being felt in any given location. However, a network of this complexity relies on strategically positioned censors along the coastline. We need to continue expanding this network of sensors and make sure that existing censors are being properly monitored and maintained.

We also need to expand from mobile phone notifications to physical alarms in homes, buildings, and especially schools/daycares.

For more details on how this Early Detection Grid works, please check out the following video by the CBC several years ago.


Know the Hazards

Knowing which hazards you need to plan for is the first step to getting prepared


Build Your Kits

Put together a household emergency kit and grab-and-go bag.


Make Your Plan

Plan how you will respond to a disaster to stay focused and safe.


Guides and Resources

Preparedness guides and community resources are available to help get ready for emergencies.


Evacuation and Recovery Resources

Learn what happens in evacuations, what financial assistance you might be eligible for and other recovery resources.


Education Programs and Toolkits

Create awareness about preparing for emergencies with Prepared BC's easy-to-use education programs and social media toolkits.

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