Preparing Alaska for the Next Big Earthquake

CstreetQuakeThe Magnitude 9.2 earthquake that struck Alaska 50 years ago on March 27, 1964, changed much more than the state's shorelines. In addition to shaking up towns across south central Alaska and Kodiak Island, it shook up the world of science and Alaska's government at state and borough levels.  Consequently, the quake's ripple effects are still being felt in ways unimagined at the time.

The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, as scientists refer to it today, “happened at just the right time in many ways,” says Peter Haeussler, a research geologist for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).   “It was incredibly important” to the development of tectonic theory. “At the time of the '64 earthquake people didn't understand the whole concept of subduction zones too well.  And in many ways, this earthquake showed how subduction zones work, how they produced earthquakes and how they produced tsunamis. This was the first of these giant earthquakes explained properly in terms of plate tectonics.  Essentially, all of the large subduction zone earthquakes since that time sort of lie in the shadow of what we know from the '64 earthquake.” 

It's never been easy to live in Alaska.  Blizzards, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes and storms have long been a part of life here, but the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 was something no one had seen before. Now, with even more people and infrastructure in Alaska, Should another 9.2 monster strike, state economic losses, and the loss of life, is bound to be much greater.  With that recognition is the realization that much can be done to save both lives and property. 

Alaska is the most seismically active region in the country. It has more earthquakes than any other state, including California. It sees a M5 quake every week. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 demonstrated that knowing the location and magnitude can be vital information for folks hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.  Very few people died as a direct result of collapsing buildings in 1964.  By far, the majority of those who died drowned in a tsunami.

A direct result of the earthquake was the establishment of the Palmer Observatory to provide timely tsunami warnings.  Over time, the observatory morphed in organization and responsibility.  Currently a part of the National Weather Service, the Palmer Observatory is now known as the National Tsunami Warning Center (NTWC) and its responsibilities have grown to include both coasts of the US and Canada and the Gulf of Mexico.  When an earthquake is detected, computers in the center analyze the event to determine the tsunami threat and then alerts potentially affected areas.

Detecting earthquakes is the responsibility of the Alaska Earthquake Center, which was established by the state in 1987. “So if you see a earthquake tomorrow,” says Michael West, State Seismologist and director of the center,  “you may be getting that info from a variety of different locations but all of it ultimately comes from the network of earthquake monitoring stations that we operate.”  In 1964, the only seismographs in Alaska were in Sitka and Fairbanks.  Those two devices are now augmented with data from more than 400 seismic sites.  Today, a network of GPS devices are scattered across the state to detect when the land is being stretched and compressed.  This knowledge is helpful in detecting threats from landslides, volcanoes and earthquakes.

“At the time of the '64 earthquake,” says geologist Haeussler, “the way people did all their surveying was by peering with their eyeballs through little telescopes on a tripod at things at a distance.  Now, say between Anchorage and Fairbanks, we can tell if Anchorage moved closer to Fairbanks by 2mm.  Back in those days, [the 1960s], the errors would have been on the order of a meter or so.  Our ability to see this change is just unprecedented, and it's getting better.” 

Another area of improvement is how the state responds to earthquakes and tsunamis. 

Bridget Bushue is an Emergency Management Specialist and the Outreach Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.   “The state has an Emergency Operations Center that is always available.  If anything happens, you just make one call to the state EOC.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there is somebody there.  That would probably be another difference between 1964 and now...they did have people that worked in Civil Defense, but it wasn't anything like it is now.”

Bushue says the state has invested in mobile generators, water purification systems, statewide communications systems, and has staged pre-packed emergency supplies.  “Most of them are in Anchorage” but there are also supplies in Fairbanks.  “They're large white containers” containing blankets, cots, radios and “ a lot of medical supplies.”   The containers are palletized and can be quickly shipped aboard C-130 cargo aircraft or loaded onto trucks for delivery.

But the real goal for the department is not reaction, but preparation.  “Our goal is to get as many people as possible prepared for not only an earthquake but any type of disaster whether it be a flood, volcano, ice storm, windstorm or whatever.”  The key to that preparation is education.

As part of its educational efforts, the state has acquired a mobile simulator that can simulate shallow fault earthquakes up to M8.   “I was here in 1964,” says Bushue.  “I was a little kid, but I remember the earthquake.”  However, Alaska has seen a large influx of new folks since 1964 and the need to educate people is a constant challenge.   “You can talk to people a lot, but when they sit in the simulator and go through an earthquake, it definitely makes an impression.  And that gets the message across.” 

Bushue also stresses the need for folks to prepare themselves for an emergency.  The state wants everyone to have enough food, water and supplies for 7 days and a bare minimum of 72 hours.  “People think that FEMA is gonna fly in here on the white horse, on the white jet, and bring everything with them...which they don't!  You have to be prepared.  You may have to shelter in your own home with no heat.”  Bushue says a family emergency kit should contain appropriate clothing, non-perishable food, water, medications and critical documents.  “We actually have a checklist with a lot of critical documents that you should have.”  Folks also need to remember their pets and include food and water for them.

“There's over 100,000 pets in Anchorage alone.  So it's like, 'OK, we need to be prepared for that.'  And in 1964, that never even entered into any equation,” says Bushue.  “Even the federal government realized that after [Hurricane] Katrina.   Up here, there's a lot of places that have dog teams. So they don't just have one or two.  They have 15 or 20.  So it does kinda change the scope of things a little bit.”

Planning also extends to the borough level and the first responders.  EMS in Valdez “used to be a scoop and run type service,” says Fire Chief George Keeney.   But the role of the fire department has changed. “We've really pushed the envelope with preparedness,” says Keeney.  “We're actually one of the state's poster [children] for emergency preparedness.”

During the '64 quake, Valdez, like a lot of towns on the south central coast, was hammered first by the earthquake and then by multiple tsunamis.  The earliest tsunamis were generated by local submarine landslides, and they took the most lives.  And like other south central towns, the tectonic wave added to the damage.  Buildings that survived shaking and ground liquefaction were damaged by the rising water.  Still, local tsunamis pose the biggest threat to life.

Valdez dispatchers are now tied in to the NTWC and the state earthquake center.  When an event occurs that Valdez should know about, Keeney and the Valdez dispatchers are automatically notified.  But even computer messages may not be fast enough.  According to Keeney, “What we do is we flat tell 'em [our dispatchers] 'don't worry about the magnitude.  Worry about if it lasts more than 20 seconds and if it's knocking stuff off your shelf, then it's time to go ahead and hit the [tsunami warning] button.  Don't wait.'   They know we will back them 100% on that because we don't have the time for them to wait.”

Even though the town of Valdez was moved because of the tsunami threat, like folks elsewhere in the state, people are once again building homes in hazardous areas.  “It's not that we haven't learned,” says Buzz Scher.  “It's almost a sense that we don't want to think about that hazard.”  Sher is a geotechnical engineer and a member of the Alaska Seismic Hazard Safety Commission.  “The fact is, Valdez has got a limited amount of area to build in.  While it may not be prudent to build in some of those areas, the fact is, that's what's gonna happen.  So we try to educate and build in systems to improve on and maximize the time that we give people in areas like that to evacuate and prepare when something's coming.  You know, the more time the better.”

Time is a tricky thing in Alaska. An earthquake can hit you today or be far off in the future.  Gary Carver is a paleo-seismologist.  “If it's [another 1964] subduction zone earthquake [in south central] that they're concerned about, then they're following a red herring because that isn't going to happen again for hundreds of years.  But that doesn't mean you can't generate another submarine landslide by a local earthquake, which could happen and probably will happen.   You can get a local earthquake still that's quite strong but not covering such a huge area [as the '64 quake].  One of those M8s, or even M7 earthquakes could generate a big submarine landslide ...and then you get a big landslide induced wave.  You know, the very largest wave we know of in Alaska was the incredible 1958 Lituya Bay wave,” says Carver, and the on shore run up reached a staggering 1,720 feet.  “And that was a [surface] landslide generated wave.”

As Alaska's population continues to grow, there's going to be more pressure for people to build in known hazard zones. For most of the state's residents, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis are a question of 'when' not 'if.'  So everyone should know what threat they face and prepare for it because, as Chief Keeney says, “you never know when Mother Nature is gonna hurt you.”
A silver lining to the Good Friday Earthquake was the work of George Plafker, a young geologist who first came to Alaska in 1953 with the United States Geological Survey.   Plafker was given an assignment to locate the geologic fault that had been the source of the '64 earthquake, but he couldn't find one.  However, he did identify the areas that rose or fell following the quake.  His findings helped prove that earthquakes are a direct result of a process known as subduction, the action of one tectonic plate being driven beneath another.  His work was a major contribution to understanding earthquakes around the world and helped cement the evolving theory of plate tectonics. 

The 84 year-old Plafker refuses to take himself too seriously.  He retired 17 years ago, but he's still hard at work.  When asked what year he concluded his research in Alaska, he loudly responds “I haven't left it!  I was there every year since I retired!  I'm still working on some things in the Copper River Delta and I'm still futzing on Middleton Island.”   He adds, “I have a brand new knee.  I should be twice as fast as I have been.”

Plafker, who works for no pay, maintains an office at the USGS in Menlo, California where he holds the title of Scientist Emeritus. 

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