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Looking for the next big quake: Seismologists attempt to create earthquake warning system

By Emily Carlson 11:09 PM May 16, 2016
CORDOVA –

The head of the Alaska Earthquake Center worries Alaskans won’t be ready for the next big quake.

“Time and time again in this state we are fortunate,” said geologist Mike West. “We dodge a bullet every time a vast majority of the time because earthquakes happen somewhere we are not.”

In January, a 7.1 magnitude quake hit southcentral Alaska. It caused a huge crack on a road in the Kenai and led to gas leaks and fires that destroyed four homes. It also caused minor damage in Anchorage. West is concerned that people think they lived through an earthquake.

“No one felt a magnitude-7 earthquake,” he said. “The analogy I use is that it’s kind of like hearing thunder across the horizon and thinking you’ve been struck by lightning. To have a magnitude-7 earthquake occur underneath your feet is a fundamentally different experience than what happened in January.”

West said he can’t understand that without better tools. Right now, there are about 150 seismic monitor scattered across the state. West said that’s not enough. There are sections of Alaska the size of Montana, he said, that don’t have any of the devices — a huge hole where scientists have no idea what’s happening.

“On lands things are OK, some places are quite good off shore and underwater it’s pretty horrible. The amazing thing is we actually have a much better map of mars than we do the earth,” said Peter Haeussler of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Haeussler said there will be another giant earthquake in Alaska, it’s only a matter of time. He’s concerned because right now, scientists have no clue what’s going on in the parts of Alaska that are unmapped.

“We have the big picture: we know the biggest meanest players out there, the largest active faults in Alaska but we don’t know all the ones a level down from there,” he said.

West and other Alaska geologists say they need more seismometers to do their jobs.

“A seismometer is actually a dumb device,” West said. “All it does, it measures how the earth right there vibrates. It doesn’t tell you about the earthquake over there or how big it was. That process relies on having measurements over here over here over here.”

West is getting help from the EarthScope program and $40 million from the federal government. Over the next few years, they will install more than 200 of the most advanced seismometers across Alaska.  IRIS, or the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology is in charge of the project. They’ve already installed seismometers across the Lower 48. There is a station every 40 square miles. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundations, they’re bringing that program to Alaska. Eventually, they will put a seismic monitoring station every 50 square miles. That’s more than 200 devices in some of the toughest terrain on earth.

“These are the worst conditions you’re gonna find and so if the drillers can do it here, they can do it in the field,” said engineer Mike Lundgren.

Lundgren had to build the drill for Alaska by hand, using parts from all sorts of different drills. Normally, it takes a 25,000-pound drill to get through Alaska’s rock bed. The problem is, the drills in the EarthScope program have to travel to the state’s most remote locations and in order to do that, they fly by helicopter.

“When I first came onboard I was not sure we could do it but here we are. It’s been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” said Lundgren, whose drill is one-tenth the size and could be ten times the challenge to operate. “It’s like flying ultra light experimental aircraft. You have to make up for the deficiency of the machine and the weakness of the machine by using a tremendous amount of feel and intuition and finesse.”

Lundgren flew up to Alaska to help train the drillers, who will install the seismic monitors nine feet in the ground. In late April, they practiced at rock quarry in Chugiak.

“They’re struggling,” Lundgren laughed as he watched them struggle though different approaches. “It tests the patience of a driller. They’ve gone through a few.”

Turns out rock was flying apart in big chips that got caught in the drill. The drillers pondered a new technique, and wished they had more equipment.

“It’s good troubleshooting, it’s good to see what the rigs capable of doing,” said driller Elliot Wilson.

In the end, Wilson and his partner used water to solve the problem and drilled deep enough for the seismic monitor. West said their efforts will eventually produce a map that could save lives.

“Over the course of years, thousands of thousands of little earthquakes paint in fault lines we didn’t know existed,” West said. “They paint in geologic processes we didn’t know were there. It’s the only way to track earthquakes with decent accuracy over the course of years.”

West said the network of stations scattered across some of the most remote places in Alaska will eventually give tsunami warnings for coastal communities, more reliable information about which locations in Alaska could produce major earthquakes, and faster and more efficient permitting for buildings.

“It sounds like I’m exaggerating but I’m not,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-generation sort of change. This is a complete and utter game changing event in the way we monitor earthquakes and natural hazards in Alaska.”

KTVA 11’s Emily Carlson can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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