FAIRBANKS — Alaska is the most earthquake-prone state. California seems synonymous with earthquakes. Mention San Francisco and earthquakes come to mind with visions of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Many schoolchildren around the country know where the San Andreas Fault is. There’s even a professional soccer team in San Jose, California, called the Earthquakes. However, Alaska is the state that records the most earthquakes per year.
From 2010 to 2015, California averaged 260 earthquakes per year while Alaska averaged 1,500 quakes. Lower population density in Alaska often means less damage from quakes and thus less news coverage. However, big quakes happen more often in Alaska than in the rest of the country combined. In the United States, 84 percent of quakes greater than magnitude 4.0 occur in Alaska.
Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska were rattled by a magnitude 7.0 quake on Nov. 30, 2018. Residents have been experiencing aftershocks since. The most powerful earthquake recorded in the United States was also in Alaska. The March 27, 1964, magnitude 9.2 quake occurred in the Prince William Sound region and lasted approximately 4.5 minutes. It was the second largest earthquake in the world, after the magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile in 1960.
Earthquakes in Alaska are not limited to the southern coast. A special exhibit at the UA Museum of the North allows visitors to delve into the history of earthquakes in Alaska’s Interior. “ShAKe: Earthquakes in Interior Alaska” examines how events in the last 100 years have been recorded through local newspapers.
Guest curator Carl Tape, a University of Alaska Fairbanks seismologist and associate professor, is hoping to raise awareness of the area’s earthquake history and frequency of quakes. “With this exhibit, I wanted to bring a century of earthquake stories back to life and remind people that this is earthquake country. Interior Alaska experiences large earthquakes. Magnitude 7+ earthquakes occur every few decades,” Tape said.
Museum guests can explore the special exhibit or discover quakes in other galleries. Visitors can learn about plate tectonics, which is the underlying cause of quakes, in a display in the Gallery of Alaska or find out how the movement of the Earth’s crust transported the fossil of an ancient thalattosaur to Alaska. A model of the trans-Alaska pipeline describes how it was built to withstand earthquakes. In “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” a sound and light installation by composer John Luther Adams, visitors can listen for the Earth drums which are triggered by seismic activity throughout Alaska. The level of sound is a reflection of current earthquake activity.
The museum is exploring quakes during hands-on programs this month giving participants the opportunity to learn about earthquake science and preparedness. Teaching children why earthquakes occur and what to do in case of a quake can help to demystify these events and alleviate fears. Kids and parents are invited to initiate conversations about earthquakes while exploring why quakes occur, how buildings are engineered and what happens when the earth moves.
Talking about what to expect and preparing together helps to empower children to respond appropriately and to feel reassured about being away from family or home if something were to occur. An earthquake preparedness booklet can be downloaded from the Alaska Earthquake Center (earthquake.alaska.edu/prepare). Protecting yourself and reducing your chance of injury can be accomplished by dropping to your hands and knees, covering your head and neck with one arm, and holding on to your shelter or head and neck until shaking stops. Beyond “drop, cover and hold on” to protect yourself, the Alaska Earthquake Center guide provides tips for assembling an emergency kit and a family plan. Answering children’s questions such as “what will happen?” or “where will I go?” may provide reassurance. Practicing “drop, cover and hold on” together will help make it a second nature response. “Sesame Street Let’s Get Ready: Planning Together for Emergencies” allows you to watch familiar characters like Elmo and Grover plan and prepare (sesamestreet.org/toolkits/ready).
If children have experienced a quake, resources available online can help you talk with them about expressing their feelings and to help them establish a feeling of safety. One tool for starting conversations with young children is the book “Trinka and Sam: The Day the Earth Shook” from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Fairbanks is earthquake territory. Major earthquakes are a part of the history and the future of Interior Alaska. You can take simple steps to prepare yourself and your family.
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.