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.