Shaking Alaska

Mount St. Elias towers above Alaska’s Icy Bay. (CREATIVE COMMONS)

Melting glaciers may influence earthquake activity.


Colliding tectonic plates are the driving force behind the hundreds of earthquakes that happen in Alaska every week, but developing science may add a new ingredient to the recipe for earthquake activity: glacial melting.

Just like a trampoline would rebound if a giant ice block was removed, the earth’s crust rebounds when glaciers melt away. The new position of the crust changes how the plates collide, and the removal of a great weight may make it easier for one plate to move the other—potentially allowing an earthquake to occur earlier than it would if the glacier were still there.


“…she and her colleagues continue to delve deeper into Alaska’s seismic puzzle in a quest to better understand how and when melting ice may catalyze an earthquake.”


Natalia Ruppert, a researcher at the Alaska Earthquake Center, helped study this phenomenon in Alaska’s Icy Bay region. The scientists combed years of records noting when small earthquakes occurred, and compared those to the changing ice mass. The data was pulled from a relatively small window, so knowledge of how exactly melting glaciers influence earthquake activity in Alaska is still foggy.

“Right now, it’s more about what’s possible and what’s probable,” Ruppert says.

Because Alaska has large earthquakes on a regular basis regardless of whether glaciers are melting or not, connecting bigger earthquakes to melting ice is difficult, Ruppert says. But she and her colleagues continue to delve deeper into Alaska’s seismic puzzle in a quest to better understand how and when melting ice may catalyze an earthquake.

“In Alaska, it’s still kind of a new frontier—how to connect climate change with earthquakes,” Ruppert says.