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

by Henry Fountain

Hardcover, 2017





New York : Crown, 2017.


"In the tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in recorded history in North America--the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and obliterated the coastal village of Chenega--and the scientist sent to look for geological clues to explain the dynamics of earthquakes, who helped to confirm the then controversial theory of plate tectonics. On March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America--and the second biggest ever in the world, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale--struck Alaska, devastating coastal towns and villages and killing more than 130 people in what was then a relatively sparsely populated region. In a riveting tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain, in his first trade book, re-creates the lives of the villagers and townspeople living in Chenega, Anchorage, and Valdez; describes the sheer beauty of the geology of the region, with its towering peaks and 20-mile-long glaciers; and reveals the impact of the quake on the towns, the buildings, and the lives of the inhabitants. George Plafker, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey with years of experience scouring the Alaskan wilderness, is asked to investigate the Prince William Sound region in the aftermath of the quake, to better understand its origins. His work confirmed the then controversial theory of plate tectonics that explained how and why such deadly quakes occur, and how we can plan for the next one"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member irregularreader
On March 27th, 1964, at 5:36pm, the most powerful earthquake in the United States (measuring a 9.2 on the Richter Scale) struck Southeastern Alaska. The quake leveled large swathes of Valdez and Anchorage, tidal waves inundated native villages (and in fact killed people as far away as California), and fires destroyed several small towns. Roads and rail lines were ripped apart, isolating entire regions of the sparsely populated state. In the aftermath of the quake, scientists studying the event would uncover data which would change how geologists viewed the world, and bring a previously dismissed theory into prominence.

This is an incredibly readable telling of the effects of the Great Alaska Earthquake, and the aftershocks felt by the scientific community after the Earth stopped shaking. Fountain has written a history book in the vein of Erik Larsen’s Isaac’s Storm. You’re going to find far more than just a tale of an Earthquake here. Fountain provides background on the major players, as well as the history of Alaska, and the fields of geology and seismology. As a result, The Great Quake is a readable and informative story of an unimaginable disaster, and the science underlying the event.

Fans of narrative nonfiction will find a lot to like here. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake is largely forgotten in the Lower 48, but the data derived from this disaster continues to reverberate into the modern day.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member little-gidding
Ostensibly about the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (Good Friday earthquake) and its repercussions on the earth sciences, this book accomplishes a lot more than that in its
LibraryThing member ecataldi
I love non-fiction and The Great Quake did an excellent job discussing the Good Friday Earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964 and going in depth about what was known about earthquakes and geology at the time. Henry Fountain includes lots of photos and personal testimonies to show just how devastating this quake was and how it changed our understanding of the world. The theory of plate tectonics (a term not even coined yet) was still hotly debated and scientists understanding and research of earthquakes was rudimentary at best. The great quake helped prove the plate tectonics theory, a concept I thought had been around for much longer than it really was. A deeply interesting read although sometimes it did get a little too bogged down in scientific details.… (more)
LibraryThing member nancyadair
When I was growing up in the early 1960s my grandfather was corresponding with Maurice Ewing and William Donn of the Lamont Geological Observatory. Gramps had been interested in their work since 1958 when he read a Harper's Magazine article by Betty Friedan called The Coming Ice Age about their research.

I didn't know that Project Moho, drilling cores in the deep sea, how to stop the next Ice Age, and Plate Tectonics was not normal dinner table talk. Gramps even got his old college buddy Roger Blough, then president of U. S. Steel, to kick in some funding for their research.

Before 1971 when I took Historical Geology in college I had no idea that Plate Tectonics was a 'new' theory. I'd grown up with it.

I requested The Great Quake:How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain from First to Read because I like geology and enjoy reading about Alaska. I was excited to learn it was about the very research that proved Plate Tectonics.

Fountain introduces us to the people of several small Alaskan villages along the coast, recounting their history and way of life. The families have Russian last names, a legacy when Russia turned the native population into virtual slaves. They live on a subsistence level, their traditional hunting and fishing impacted by factory fishing.

In 1964, on Good Friday, a 9.8 earthquake wrecked havoc and destroyed the villages, claiming the lives of 130 people. It is devastating to read about the tsunamis that wiped the land clean not only of people and houses but trees and the loose rocky layer on the shore.

Geologist George Plafker was very familiar with the area. The day after the quake he flew over the area. His observations led to proving the controversial theory of Plate Tectonics that even Maurice Ewing did not yet subscribe to!

The book reads like popular disaster books such as Dead Wake by Eric Larson, setting up the people and history, recreating the horror of the disaster, and then cogently explaining how Plafker's research impacted the scientific community. Readers can expect to learn Alaskan history and geography, be moved by the horror of the destruction, and brought to understand this planet we live on.

I received a free ebook through First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member ralphz
Hard to believe, but even 50 years ago, scientists were at odds over the mechanism of earthquakes. Some thought it was a settled debate, that the earth was cooling and cracking. Others said earthquakes were the result of a moving crust.

The debate was settled by the largest quake in North American history, the Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska on March 27, 1964.

It was a massive shake, 9.2 magnitude, and caused more than 130 deaths. This book looks at the quake, who were its victims, and how it led to our current understanding of how quakes work.

The book focuses on the village of Chenega, a port town that was almost completely wiped out in the disaster. The almost five-minute-long shaking caused all the damage one would expect, but that wasn’t the main part of the disaster.

As survivors run for the high point in the village, the one-room schoolhouse overlooking the docks, residents notice that all the water in the bay has disappeared. Moments later, the water rushes back in a tsunami, one of a couple that day, flooding the town and ripping kids away from their parents. Dockworkers and their families watching them unload a ship disappeared that day, along with the dock itself.

The book also looks at the efforts of scientists who were attempting to explain what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again.

It was a sad scene painted in the book, people pushed to their limits as their family members went missing, forever impacted, and a village that was abandoned thereafter.

An interesting part of the tale is the fact that there was a disputed on the science of earthquakes. Some considered it “settled” science, that there was no way that continental crust floated on the earth’s mantle. Turns out, of course, that’s exactly how it happens, and the measurements that field scientists took revealed that.

As an aside, whenever anybody says the science of something is “settled,” don’t believe it. Science is always about challenging theories, and as such, always is up for further exploration. Without that curiosity, science itself dies.

A heart-wrenching story, and worth a read.

This book was provided to me by Blogging for Books.

For more of my reviews, go to Ralphsbooks.
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LibraryThing member MontzaleeW
The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain is a wonderful history and science book that I enjoyed thoroughly. Two subjects I love and earthquakes are exciting and scary at the same time. It was interesting to find out about what life was like in Alaska before the quakes and after the big quake. Individual stories and an overall view of society prior, during, and after. A lot of wonderful information in a way that did not focus on a political point but on a personal view, even from the history of it. Very interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member tgeorge2348
This is an excellent book describing the events of March 27, 1964 in south central Alaska, from multiple points of view. The author does a great job of setting the stage for what life was like in several of the locations that were severely impacted by the 9.2 magnitude earthquake, introducing a number of individuals that were involved. Not only does he describe the quake and resulting tsunami, but the aftermath not only to the communities and people, but to our understanding of what caused the event.

The multiple threads of the story, going back to the initial proposal of "continental drift," make each chapter a new adventure and voyage of discovery, culminating in a summary of what we understand today, and the status of some of the places and individuals, fifty plus years later.

I experienced the 1964 earthquake personally, 285 nautical miles due north of the epicenter in Fairbanks, having just turned 13 the day before. Trees swayed, pipes rattled, and the extended shaking told us it was something big. But it took a few hours before reports by radio came in to relay the magnitude of the event and devastation. This book allows one to zoom into the specific places that were impacted and get a ring-side-seat view of what happened. It also, however, zooms out and in a hard to put down fashion, tells the bigger story of how the event helped advance our understanding of earth building processes.

My thanks to Henry Fountain for sharing this story with us!
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