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

In the bestselling tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, The Great Quake is a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in North American recorded history — the 1964 Alaska earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and swept away the island village of Chenega — and the geologist who hunted for clues to explain how and why it took place.

At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2. earthquake – the second most powerful in world history – struck the young state of Alaska. The violent shaking, followed by massive tsunamis, devastated the southern half of the state and killed more than 130 people. A day later, George Plafker, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, arrived to investigate. His fascinating scientific detective work in the months that followed helped confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
In a compelling tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain combines history and science to bring the quake and its aftermath to life in vivid detail. With deep, on-the-ground reporting from Alaska, often in the company of George Plafker, Fountain shows how the earthquake left its mark on the land and its people — and on science.


In the bestselling tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, The Great Quake is a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in North American recorded history — the 1964 Alaska earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and swept away the island village of Chenega — and the geologist who hunted for clues to explain how and why it took place.

At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, a magnitude 9.2. earthquake – the second most powerful in world history – struck the young state of Alaska. The violent shaking, followed by massive tsunamis, devastated the southern half of the state and killed more than 130 people. A day later, George Plafker, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, arrived to investigate. His fascinating scientific detective work in the months that followed helped confirm the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.
In a compelling tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain combines history and science to bring the quake and its aftermath to life in vivid detail. With deep, on-the-ground reporting from Alaska, often in the company of George Plafker, Fountain shows how the earthquake left its mark on the land and its people — and on science.

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  • From the book ***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

    Copyright © 2017 Henry Fountain

    Chapter 1: ALTERED STATE

    Riding shotgun beneath the clouds in a rattling De Havilland Otter, George Plafker gazed down upon an Alaska he'd never seen before.

    A geologist with the US Geological Survey, at the age of thirty-five Plafker was already something of an old Alaska hand. Though he was based at the Survey's offices in Menlo Park, California, south of San Francisco (and with his wife, Ruth, had a modest house nearby where they were raising their three children), as a field geologist with its Alaska branch Plafker had spent many summers in the forty-ninth state. He was accustomed to exploring the back country for days at a time with little more than a rock hammer and a field notebook, some C rations to stave off hunger and a gun to ward off bears, studying and mapping rock formations to better understand, describe and catalog the state's immense mineral resources. To a degree Plafker even looked the part of an Alaskan sourdough, lean and solid with a shock of wavy black hair swept behind half-moon ears, brown eyes and a large nose above a nothing-fancy mustache. His huge hands looked as if they'd be more at home holding a lumberjack's ax or prospector's shovel than a compass and hand level.

    In his time in Alaska, Plafker had come to realize he didn't much care for the vast tundra of the central and northern parts of the state. Much of this land was what the Russians had named taiga: the boreal forest, thick with conifers and willows and birches and, to his mind at least, essentially impenetrable. Even if you could somehow get around the terrain, interior Alaska was boring, geo- logically speaking. You could search across an entire quadrangle— about fifty square miles—and never find a rock outcropping, he said. To Plafker, that was a colossal waste of time: outcroppings were a geologist's bread and butter, the key to understanding what the land was made of.

    Southern Alaska—the grand arc of land from the Alaskan Peninsula in the southwest, up through Cook Inlet and Anchor- age and southeast to the Panhandle, encompassing Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska and the smaller islands of Prince William Sound—was more to his liking, and it was here he had done most of his work. The region was alive with rocks that a geologist, or anyone, could see. These were rocks that had been pressure-cooked for millions of years, shoved down, lifted up, ground and muddled and re-formed and folded over and under and this way and that. Some of them—the dark, slaty ones that were so jumbled as to lack much of what a geologist might consider character— Plafker and others affectionately referred to as "black crap." Together with other kinds of rock they formed the region's signature feature—its steep-sided mountains that, where they met the sea, formed deep, narrow fjords. What's more, the mountains were draped by glaciers and laced with rivers, all of which wore at the rocks, grinding them into coarse gravel and fine silt and carrying it all down toward the sea in vast washes of sediment.

    Bush pilots had flown Plafker across this geological wonder- land too many times to count, dropping him off at some remote lake or beach or God-knows-where location with instructions to pick him up a week or so later. But in all of his time looking at southern Alaska from the air, he had never seen anything like this.

    Plafker had arrived in Anchorage, the state's biggest city, from the Lower 48 the day before. In the late afternoon of the day before that—March 27, 1964, Good Friday on the Christian...

About the Author-
  • HENRY FOUNTAIN has been a reporter and editor at the New York Times for two decades, writing about science for most of that time. From 1999 to 2009 he wrote "Observatory," a weekly column in the Science Times section. He was an editor on the national news desk and the Sunday Review and was one of the first editors of Circuits, the Times' pioneering technology section. Prior to coming to the Times, Fountain worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, New York Newsday, and the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut. He is a graduate of Yale University, where he majored in architecture. He and his family live just outside of New York City.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 5, 2017
    Fountain, a veteran New York Times reporter and editor, adopts a human-interest perspective as he reports on the lives affected by the infamous Alaskan earthquake of Mar. 27, 1964. He begins by introducing George Plafker and his colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey who arrived in Alaska after the quake to quickly take stock of the damage. Fountain then turns back the clock for several chapters of backstory, detailing the lives of residents of the small village of Chenega and the little town of Valdez, both soon to be devastated by the quake. A multipart biographical sketch of Plafker sandwiches a brief history of Alfred Wegener’s continental-drift hypothesis, followed by still more prequake background on residents of the affected locales. Fountain sidetracks once more to discuss previous seismic activity in Alaska before finally presenting the actual quake. He tallies the lives lost, saved, and changed, only returning to Plafker and his paradigm-changing work supporting Wegener’s idea for the final two chapters. Readers interested in the human toll of Alaska’s Good Friday Quake will appreciate the story, but those looking for an in-depth scientific discussion will need to look elsewhere.

  • Kirkus

    June 15, 2017
    A veteran science journalist illuminates the significance of the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America.In his first book, New York Times reporter and editor Fountain combines scientific expertise and human interest storytelling to detail the devastation wreaked by the massive 1964 earthquake and explain why it hasn't gotten more attention and has been all but forgotten less than 60 years later. As the author makes clear, the quake, which took place on Good Friday, March 27, was truly a horrific disaster to experience: its magnitude was 9.2, and it lasted "the better part of five minutes, which is an eternity for an earthquake." Furthermore, "the energy released was equivalent to thousands of A-bombs," and it opened cracks that were 6 feet wide, 4 feet deep, and a quarter-mile long. Yet because the region most severely affected was underpopulated, it never achieved the notoriety of smaller California quakes through the decades. The human cost was some 130 casualties, many from the giant waves that engulfed small coastal villages. Fountain relates much of the narrative through the perspective of George Plafker, "a geologist with the US Geological Survey" who, at 35, "was already something of an old Alaska hand." Plafker arrived in the wake of the earthquake and used what he learned to advance the theory of plate tectonics, which is "now considered as consequential as Darwin's theory of evolution (although plate tectonics was the work of many people not one man)." The author provides a narrative counterpoint through the perspective of a young female teacher who saw the village surrounding her one-room schoolhouse destroyed. Though Fountain never achieves the novelistic drama of Jon Krakauer or Sebastian Junger in their bestselling man-against-nature books, he succeeds in showing why this particular earthquake and its aftermath are worth remembering. A readable book that shows how natural disaster spurred scientific inquiry.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    June 15, 2017

    The Good Friday earthquake in Alaska struck at 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964. Measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, it is considered the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America. In this meticulously researched book, New York Times reporter and editor Fountain tells the story of the earthquake through the experiences of the citizens of Alaska, focusing specifically on the village of Chenega, which was obliterated; Valdez, which was destroyed, forcing the town to move; and heavily damaged Anchorage. The earthquake completely changed the Alaskan landscape, in some places lifting or subsiding the land six feet or more. The author alternates these personal accounts with an examination of how the earthquake ended one of the greatest controversies in geology. As shown through the fieldwork, analysis, and insights of geologist George Plafker, the earthquake entirely changed scientific opinion in favor of the theory of plate tectonics. VERDICT This is an ideal option for those who enjoyed Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, though Fountain's book isn't as gripping as Larson's. Lay readers may be intrigued as well, but natural disaster aficionados and geology fans are the best audience for this work.--Laura Hiatt, Fort Collins, CO

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise, a NY Times bestseller. "For five terrifying minutes in 1964, the earth shook beneath Anchorage, Alaska. It devastated the city, and towns and villages throughout the state. In this fast-paced, engaging account of that disaster, Henry Fountain tells us what it was like to be there. His interviews with fortunate survivors bear witness to the pluck and determination of the human spirit--and reveals the better side of our natures in times of crisis. Read this book to better understand nature's power--and our human resilience. Fountain's riveting, 'you were there' account pulls you in, and keeps you turning the pages to find out who survived--and how."
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The Great Quake
The Great Quake
How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
Henry Fountain
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