Seward, Alaska: Our first earthquake

tsunami_hazard_sign_blue
Source: USGS

 

The shower doors clattered obnoxiously, waking us up.  Wondering what our neighbors could be doing to at this ungodly hour, Dale climbed out of bed and wandered into the living room.  Even in the dark, he could tell that the blinds were shaking.   This was no noisy neighbor; we were having an earthquake.

He roused me from bed, a smile on his face.  Alaska is prone to earthquakes, and we’d been waiting to experience one.  Here it was!  The disturbance started at 12:31 and continued long enough for me to pay attention to it.  I felt off balance as the ground wobbled beneath my feet.  It wasn’t like in the movies, where the earth shakes so violently that pictures fall from walls and plates smash to the floor; everything rocked and rattled and clattered, but nothing tumbled from the shelves.

My mind wandered first to the apartment above our heads, and then to the abandoned orphanage up the hill from us, damaged beyond repair in a decades-old, cataclysmic earthquake.  I’ve long suspected that it will someday collapse and slide downhill, an avalanche of asbestos and sad memories.  Hopefully tonight would not be the night.

But after a minute or so, the movement stopped and the ground returned to its stable, quiet self.  A real earthquake!  Finally!  It was exciting but not so powerful that it brought the roof down on our heads.  Perfect!

We had to be up early, so the celebration was brief.  We’d just returned to bed, however, when the tsunami siren went off.

Alrighty then.  It must’ve been a bigger quake than we’d realized.

Seward sits on Resurrection Bay, which empties into the Gulf of Alaska.  Seward, like all Alaskan coastal towns, is at risk for tsunamis and was, in fact, almost destroyed by two that followed the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 (which you can read about here).

Map of Seward, Alaska
(Credit: Daniel Feher, Free World Maps)

The town now has an early warning system that includes a siren, the shriek   of which is familiar to Sewardites as it’s tested one afternoon every week.  The first few times I heard it I thought it was creepy and pessimistic, evocative of air raid drills and the end of the world, but a man’s voice accompanies it, reassuring us: “this is only a drill,” and nowadays I barely notice it.

Hearing it in the middle of the night, however, was a whole different enchilada.  The siren, along with that booming, disembodied voice, stood in sharp contrast to the snow falling softly outside.  The din bounced back and forth between the mountains, making everything feel disjointed and ominous.  The voice told us not that this was a drill but (and I loosely paraphrase here) that the shit had just gotten real.  (Except he didn’t curse.  Tsunami Siren Man would never curse).

The voice instructed us to listen to the radio, so of course we did what it said. We don’t own a portable radio, so Dale listened in the car while I went inside to pack. He was informed that an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 8.2 (it was later downgraded to 7.9) had occurred in the Gulf of Alaska about 181 miles south of Kodiak Island.

Listeners were told to evacuate to higher ground if necessary because a tsunami was potentially headed our way.  A watch had been issued not just for the Alaskan coast but also for communities as far away as British Columbia, with warnings as far south as California.

Dale and I live well above the inundation point, which is 50 feet above sea level, so we decided to stay put. Much of downtown Seward, however, sits below this point, and many people evacuated. Over 100 went to Seward High School while others went to the hospital, and many arrived at my place of work, a complex that includes a nursing home and outpatient clinic. People drove to other high places as well, including our neighborhood. We watched car after car drive up the street. The roads were lined with vehicles. Residents living in these high areas volunteered their driveways, and impromptu tsunami parties popped up. Then there were the folks who had planned to hit the highway and leave town altogether but diverted to the Pit Bar instead, waiting out whatever was to come while having a drink!

Even though we had no plans to leave home, we quickly packed go-bags just in case. It was a strange thing to be scurrying around in the middle of the night filling backpacks with crucial items, and I’m sure there are important things that I forgot. It was a slapdash packing job for sure, but I grabbed the essentials—medications, food, and extra clothing. (You’ll be surprised to learn that I left the butter and the chocolate behind.)

While I packed, I did other things as well, such as filling the bathtub with water (smart) and brushing my hair (probably not necessary).
Dale paused outside the bathroom and asked me, “Why are you brushing your hair? You don’t need to brush your hair!”

I merely shrugged.  Of course I was going to brush my hair.  I had bed head. And it was easy for him to say; he has no hair!  Men.

In the midst of all of this, my sister called from Texas. It was 4:30 her time, several hours before she normally gets up. Her husband was watching TV when he saw the news alert—Alaska had experienced a major earthquake and was under a tsunami watch. He woke her up, and she immediately called me. I assured her that we were on high ground and that I would keep her posted.

We threw our bags in the car and then sat in the front seat, listening to the local radio station.  I texted back and forth with friends and monitored Facebook feeds.  Janet, who has lived in our neighborhood for years, assured us that we were well above the inundation zone; meanwhile, Jingyi sent us this alert:

Tsunami warning (I added the highlight, in red of course, to make it more dramatic)

The predictions were chilling: the waves would hit Kodiak at around 1:45, and we were next.  The location of the quake made the tsunami a straight shot up Resurrection Bay.

The two radio broadcasters, local guys who were probably doing this on their own time, offered voices of reassurance.  They had little solid information, however, and it was interesting to listen to them search for information just as we were.

The Kodiak Police Department posted on Facebook regularly, but the gist of their updates was along the lines of “we’re still under a tsunami alert, so don’t go home.”  Government websites that might’ve been useful, such as FEMA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service, were not being maintained due to the government shut down.

Earthquake post/FEMA website shut down
Thanks for nothing, guys (Circular notation and frowny face mine)

People on Facebook, of course, posted a steady stream of information, but it wasn’t always helpful or correct.  Rumors spread that the bay outside of Kodiak had gone bone dry, the water sucked out into the gulf, just waiting for its cue to rush back in and obliterate everything in its path.  The number 35, as in 35-foot waves, was also thrown around, because a buoy had registered a 35-foot wave in the Gulf of Alaska.  Dale and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  That was a big wave.

Our thoughts rested on Resurrection Bay.  Of course we couldn’t see it now; it was the middle of the night and snowing to boot.  But our minds went there nonetheless.  I pictured our beautiful little bay poised to receive a tsunami.  Would it soon be retracting and then expanding, spilling water on the downtown buildings that suddenly seemed so small?  We thought of all the places we love along the waterfront—the park, our favorite restaurants, and the SeaLife Center, which provides a home to injured and orphaned sea animals.

Seward, Alaska
Resurrection Bay as seen from the Mt. Marathon Jeep Trail on a lovely summer day last year. Seward sits in the center of the photo

But 1:45 came and went, and no giant waves pummeled Kodiak.  We waited and waited, our eyes burning with fatigue.  More than once Dale said, “I’m going to bed,” but I insisted that we stay up.  We might have a tsunami headed our way!  We had to be alert!

Finally, at about 3:30, when the waters still remained quiet, we headed inside.   Either it was going to hit or it wasn’t, but it now seemed unlikely.  Indeed, the tsunami warning was cancelled sometime after 4:00 with no reports of injuries or significant damage, and those people who were still in shelters went home to catch a few hours of sleep before getting up and starting a new day.

Alaska, the land of earthquakes

A website that actually was useful Tuesday night was the Earthquake Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.  It was useful mainly for its shock value, illustrating just how unstable Alaska really is.  The state has thousands upon thousands of earthquakes every year, and the website includes a real-time graphic showing the location of the quakes that have registered across the past two weeks (it also includes the categories of “Glacial Event” and “Explosions” for good measure).

The earthquakes are represented by dots on an Alaskan map, a dense spattering of yellows, oranges, and reds.  Seeing the graphic for the first time brought to mind Dippin’ Dots ice cream, or bubbles, but in reality it’s more like autumn-hued chicken pox spreading across the face of Alaska.  That’s gonna leave scars.

 

Earthquake map
A screen shot that I took Tuesday night.  It depicted the recent earthquake activity, represented by the pretty bubbles strewn across the map. All those red and orange spots in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska indicate our earthquake and the smaller temblors that followed.

Alaska is one of the most seismically active regions in the world and has thousands of earthquakes every month.  11% of the world’s earthquakes happen in Alaska.  Last month alone, the Earthquake Center identified 2,960 earthquakes.  (That’s 95 a day!)  12 were greater than or equal to a magnitude of 4.0.

Today, I took a screen shot (below) as a follow up to our quake, which happened on January 23.  Dozens of aftershocks occurred after the big one and are still occurring.  Also check out the top of the graphic.  Alaska has had 1,654 earthquakes in the past two weeks!

 

Alaska earthquakes
Screenshot taken on January 28, 2018

Here are some facts about Alaska from the Earthquake Center:

  • The fault lines below the Alaskan mainland and the Gulf of Alaska exert immense force on the region.  As the Earthquake Center describes it, these fault systems are “compressing the land in a north-south direction and shearing or tugging southern Alaska to the west.”  Multiple fault systems crisscross Alaska and contribute to all that compressing and shearing and tugging.  (Such great verbs!)
  • The subduction zone on which Alaska rests produces some of the world’s largest earthquakes, including four of the 15 largest on record.
  • Earthquakes of a magnitude 6-7 can happen almost anywhere in the state.
  • The Earthquake Center registers an average of one quake every 15 minutes, and in 2014 they registered a record 40,000+ earthquakes in Alaska.  That’s in part because the center’s expanding network of seismic monitoring stations allows them to detect smaller earthquakes.
  • The center identified 150,000+ quakes in Alaska over the past five years, with 31 having a magnitude of 6 or greater and four with a magnitude of at least 7.
  • Of the 877 earthquakes of magnitudes 5 or greater that occurred in the United States from 1995-2015, 85% of those happened in Alaska.

Finally, the second largest earthquake in recorded history occurred in southern Alaska in 1964.  Known as the the Good Friday Earthquake or the Great Alaskan Earthquake, it registered a magnitude of 9.2 and, as I mentioned above, wreaked legendary destruction on Seward and many other Alaskan coastal towns.  Its legacy hangs over Alaska to this day.

Tuesday’s earthquake

In the end, a tsunami did hit Resurrection Bay, but it was only a few inches high.  The highest wave, which measured about nine inches above the tide level, was recorded in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island.

At work the next day, we were bleary eyed but excited to tell our stories.  Some long-time residents said that this was the strongest quake they’d ever experienced (excluding the quake of 1964 of course, but I don’t know anyone who was here then).  Those on the top floor of multi-story houses experienced a great deal more turbulence than we did.  A few people said their homes swayed and rocked.  Another described the distress of having to decide how to rescue both her children from different bedrooms in the middle of the quake.  We all expressed relief that ultimately it had come to nothing and that the town that we love is still intact.

Even though Tuesday’s earthquake had no ill-effects on Alaska, it was still a very big one, about the same magnitude as the temblor that destroyed San Francisco in 1906.  The tremors were felt as far away as Fairbanks and Washington State.

And authorities were right to enact a tsunami alert, because earthquakes of this magnitude are often accompanied by tsunamis.  Why, then, didn’t we have one?  It had to do with the type ofquake that occurred.

All earthquakes are caused by the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates, but different types of movement can happen.  Tuesday’s earthquake was of the “strike-slip” variety, which consists of side-to-side movement caused by the plates moving horizontally.  These are not as common as subduction earthquakes, which occur along zones where one plate is pushing underneath another in a process known as subduction.  When one plate thrusts underneath another, vertical movement occurs that can displace large amounts of water and generate tsunamis.  Lucky for us, however, strike-slip quakes don’t generally create large tsunamis.

~~~~~

Seward, Alaska
I took this the day after the earthquake.  The view from my office–not a bad reason to go to work but a reminder that those mountains were created by the ever-shifting ground beneath us.

I talked to my mom a few days ago and told her about the earthquake.

Her response?  “I think it’s time you move back to Texas.”  Which she followed with, “But that’s not going to happen, is it?”

I laughed.

Nope.

I’m not going to lie; sitting in the car in the middle of the night, processing the fact that a tsunami might be headed toward us, was pretty disconcerting.  But the experience makes us love Alaska more, not less.  It’s exciting.  It’s different.  It’s challenging.  If Alaska was an easy place to live, everyone would be headed this way.

There are always trade-offs, no matter where you live, and here, the landscape is as grand as the geology.  The wildlife, the people, and the sweeping views of mountains and ocean all make it a spectacular place to be.  It’s worth the possibility that the ground may shake beneath our feet every once in a while.

 


Update, 02/03/2018: The Alaska Earthquake Center now has a continuously evolving research section devoted to this quake, which they’re calling the Offshore Kodiak Magnitude 7.9 Earthquake.