A 9.2 earthquake and what it taught us

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Stephen Phillips Phillip­sis a writer in Port­land, Ore.

The Great Quake How the Big­gest Earthquake in North Amer­ica Changed Our Un­der­stand­ing of the Planet Henry Foun­tain Crown: 288 pp., $28

Ge­o­log­i­cal tu­mult is all around us in the Amer­i­can West, in our ver­tig­i­nous to­pog­ra­phy and in our heads — fear of the Big One. But a lit­tle over half a cen­tury ago there came what, be­fit­ting its mag­ni­tude and lo­cale — in the “Great Land” of the Aleut — may be called the Great One. Henry Foun­tain’s “The Great Quake” is ded­i­cated to the five ter­ri­fy­ingly con­vul­sive min­utes around din­ner­time on March 27, 1964, when the forces of ge­o­log­i­cal up­heaval, nor­mally be­neath our thresh­old of per­cep­tion, vi­o­lently ob­truded into hu­man time, re­con­fig­ur­ing not only the land­scape of south cen­tral Alaska but our un­der­stand­ing of earth­quakes and the risk posed today by the Big One and Re­ally Big One.

For an idea of its power, con­sider the 1994 tem­blor that shook Northridge, killing 57, lasted a brisk 30 sec­onds at most. The Alaskan earthquake reg­is­tered 9.2 on the Richter Scale (many times stronger than the big­gest quake pre­dicted along the San An­dreas fault), mak­ing it the most force­ful tremor ever recorded in North Amer­ica. Glob­ally, it’s sec­ond only to the 9.5 Chilean earthquake of 1960. Had it struck any sort of pop­u­la­tion den­sity, the loss of life would have been calami­tous. As it was, 131 peo­ple died (in­clud­ing 16 in Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia — swept away by tsunamis that in­un­dated the West Coast and points south). Foun­tain lo­cates part of his story in the two com­mu­ni­ties that bore the brunt — Chenega and Valdez. They’re em­blem­atic of a still-ger­mi­nal Alaskan state (ad­mit­ted to the Union in 1959): a na­tive fish­ing vil­lage, pop­u­la­tion 75, and old gold rush boom­town num­ber­ing 841 souls sus­tained since then as a trans­porta­tion hub.

Avoid­ing por­ten­tous­ness, Foun­tain, a vet­eran New York Times science re­porter, paints a deft por­trait of life in these re­mote out­posts. In Chenega it re­volves around sub­sis­tence fish­ing and hunt­ing and — legacy of an ear­lier over­lord — the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church. And in Valdez, also eco­nom­i­cally mar­ginal, life cen­ters around the ar­rival of sup­ply ships from Seat­tle, the un­load­ing of which af­ford not only a spec­ta­cle for a town oth­er­wise short on di­ver­sions but ex­tra in­come for its un­der­em­ployed. As the zero-hour ap­proaches, myr­iad mi­cro-acts seal fates, such as the de­ci­sion to greet a new ar­rival at Valdez’s dock, which would col­lapse and pitch all on it into tur­bid ocean. Scenes of quo­tid­ian life trail off in el­lipses: the sci-fi pup­petry of “Fire­ball XL5” plays on tele­vi­sions in An­chor­age, far­ther from the epi­cen­ter but still pum­meled.

Foun­tain isn’t a showy writer, but there’s a fever-dream qual­ity to his ac­count of those five min­utes that “made the earth ring like a bell” that cap­tures the hal­lu­cino­genic odd­ness of a world off-kil­ter, out-of-joint, sud­denly un­co­op­er­a­tive. Com­bi­na­tions of words with no earthly busi­ness be­ing to­gether oc­cur. “[H]ouses seemed to dance in place,” he writes. Else­where, “Stair­ways wrig­gled and writhed.” Later, “the ground it­self was start­ing to break into strange, an­gu­lar blocks, some ro­tat­ing up and oth­ers down. It was as if swarms of or­gan­isms were in­side the soil, giv­ing it life.” Or, “the rocks … be­gan to bounce, like the ball in a game of jacks.”

Trees and build­ings whip­saw, solid ground be­haves like liq­uid, land cleaves apart, a comic sym­phony of wa­ter and sewage strikes up from ex­posed plumb­ing, the rak­ish progress of fur­ni­ture across an An­chor­age room later cues sci­en­tists to the course of the tremor. It’s a re­minder of the puni­ness of our world when the earth shrugs.

Fi­nally, there’s the spooky la­tency as the tide re­cedes at Chenega “to a dis­tance of about a quar­ter of a mile and a depth of more than 120 feet” — the pref­ace to tsunamis that would be the killing blow for most vic­tims. Af­ter­ward, the ocean runs red with dead fish flushed from the depths by tur­bu­lence.

Don’t in­fer from this, though, that “The Great Quake” is sim­ply a su­pe­rior form of dis­as­ter porn. Foun­tain has writ­ten a braided nar­ra­tive about the dia­lec­tic be­tween sci­en­tific the­ory and ob­ser­va­tion that sit­u­ates the Alaskan earthquake amid a decades-long quest to un­der­stand how the land­scape around us evolved.

It’s an odyssey that be­gins with an odd­ball Ger­man poly­math Al­fred We­gener, who, gaz­ing upon an at­las in 1911, no­tices the par­al­lel­ism be­tween the east coast of South Amer­ica and west coast of Africa and posits that today’s con­ti­nents orig­i­nated in a uni­tary land­mass he names Pangea.

We­gener stum­bles, how­ever, in sup­ply­ing a plau­si­ble en­gine for con­ti­nen­tal drift. Later sci­en­tists sug­gest one: magma dis­gorged from the Earth mi­do­cean that, im­pelled by the cir­cu­lar mo­tion of con­vec­tion, spreads the seabed, slowly driv­ing con­ti­nents apart, but this re­mains an un­sub­stan­ti­ated the­ory — one au­thor call­ing it “an es­say in geopo­etry.”

En­ter Ge­orge Plafker, prod­uct of Brook­lyn Col­lege and im­pla­ca­ble old-school rock­hound, tasked by the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey with as­sess­ing the quake-wrought de­struc­tion. Travers­ing Alaska’s shat­tered coast­line by barge and bush plane, he em­ploys the field ge­ol­o­gist’s tools — ham­mer, spirit level, com­pass, notepad and, to “read” the land­scape, his eyes. He also ap­plies the the­o­ret­i­cal tool set fur­nished by We­gener and his heirs.

The anal­y­sis Plafker pro­duced in Science mag­a­zine de­scribes the quake as the prod­uct of magma wedg­ing the Pa­cific Ocean floor un­der North Amer­ica, com­pact­ing the lat­ter un­til it gave way. “[W]hen the fault rup­tured,” Foun­tain writes, “the con­ti­nen­tal crust re­bounded like a spring, up and out.” Plafker had laid out the dy­nam­ics of what is today called the “megath­rust” earthquake, the type that dec­i­mated parts of Ja­pan in 2011 and now im­per­ils the Pa­cific North­west. He’d also ce­mented ac­cep­tance of plate tec­ton­ics, the idea the Earth is fis­sured by grind­ing plates that, Foun­tain writes, sup­plies a mas­ter key for un­der­stand­ing not only earth­quakes but “all the ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures and pro­cesses that hu­mans have won­dered about for cen­turies.”

In­ter­leav­ing snap­shots of a lost world, the pri­mal power of na­ture and high science, “The Great Quake” is an out­stand­ing work of nonfiction. It’s also a re­minder that the orig­i­nal agent of cre­ative de­struc­tion re­sides not in the cor­po­rate board­room, ivory tower or artist’s salon but be­neath our feet.

U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey

THE 1964 earthquake caused 4th Av­enue in An­chor­age to drop 10 feet. The Alaskan tem­blor was North Amer­ica’s largest ever.

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