Some 10,000 miles of shoreline in south-central Alaska was affected by the subsidence or uplift associated with the great Alaska earthquake of March 27, 1964. The changes in shoreline processes and beach morphology that were suddenly initiated by the earthquake were similar to those ordinarily caused by gradual changes in sea level operating over hundreds of years, while other more readily visible changes were similar to some of the effects of great but short-lived storms. Phenomena became available for observation within a few hours which would otherwise not have been available for many years.
In the subsided areas—including the shorelines of the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Cook Inlet—beaches tended to flatten in gradient and to recede shoreward. Minor beach features were altered or destroyed on submergence but began to reappear and to stabilize in their normal shapes within a few months after the earthquake. Frontal beach ridges migrated shoreward and grew higher and wider than they were before. Along narrow beaches backed by bluffs, the relatively higher sea level led to vigorous erosion of the bluff toes. Stream mouths were drowned and some were altered by seismic sea waves, but they adjusted within a few months to the new conditions.
In the uplifted areas, generally around Prince William Sound, virtually all beaches were stranded out of reach of the sea. New beaches are gradually developing to fit new sea levels, but the processes are slow, in part because the material on the lower parts of the old beaches is predominantly fine grained. Streams were lengthened in the emergent areas, and down cutting and bank erosion have increased.
Except at Homer and a few small villages, where groins, bulkheads, and cobble-filled baskets were installed, there has been little attempt to protect the postearthquake shorelines. The few structures that were built have been only partially successful because there was too little time to study the habits of the new shore features and to design appropriate protection measures. Emergence of large areas that were once below water and permanent submergence of once-useful land areas have led to many problems of land use and ownership in addition to the destruction or relocation of wildfowl, shellfish, and salmon habitats.