How Alaska’s past played a role earthquake preparedness in the Lower 48

ShakeAlert isn’t available in Alaska, but the state has other resources
When a disaster strikes, first responders are the ones we look to when we need help.
Published: Nov. 29, 2020 at 8:04 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Whether you feel it or not, the ground in Alaska is constantly moving. The state is no stranger to earthquakes and sees many each day.

When a disaster strikes, first responders are the ones we look to when we need help.

There are a few tools available to them here in Alaska, but there’s also a relatively new system in the Lower 48 that isn’t yet available in the 49th state. Data from the Anchorage area’s 2018 7.1 quake helped develop it.


In Alaska, there are various tools that can help when a quake hits, like the 911 system, ham radios and the Nixle program. However, outside of communication, Matt Gardine with the Alaska Earthquake Center said there are two tools most likely to be used.

The first is a ShakeMap created by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). It is made within minutes of a quake hitting and shows which areas were likely shook the most based on the location and magnitude of the quake.

ShakeMap of Nov. 30 2018 Alaska earthquake
ShakeMap of Nov. 30 2018 Alaska earthquake((USGS))

“It’s certainly one of the most important products immediately after an earthquake that we produce,” Gardine said.

“But truthfully, the ShakeMaps are usually pretty large scale,” Gardine said. “You can’t go neighborhood-by-neighborhood from them. It’s more city-by-city kind of resolution.”

Gardine said the fact that the map can be out in five minutes is what makes it useful for emergency responders in particular.

Gray said emergency managers may not use it right away, but they turn to it when prioritizing where to start doing damage assessments, after they know everyone is safe.

Gardine said another system available is a FEMA product called Hazus. It meshes ShakeMap data with area infrastructure to show where damage could be worse.

Gardine said this tool is incredibly valuable, but it’s only as good as the data that goes into it.

He said it is quite good for Anchorage, but as you get to smaller villages, it gets more and more questionable when there’s less data, and it becomes less useful.

Hazus’ use isn’t limited to earthquakes. It can be used for any type of emergency.


There’s a relatively new system in the Lower 48 called ShakeAlert that has the potential to save lives put in jeopardy because of an earthquake, and Alaska helped play a role in it’s development.

When an earthquake strikes, and people take cover, ShakeAlert can do things humans can’t.

“If there’s earthquake shaking that’s approaching, we want to be able to have human beings out of the loop, because it takes time for people to do things,” ShakeAlert Communications Coordinator Robert de Groot said.

The ShakeAlert system can prompt life-saving automated actions—like opening firehouse doors, putting an alert over a school intercom, or even slow down trains—like the BART system in the bay area.

It can also be used as an early warning system since scientists don’t have the capability to predict earthquakes. It can tell users as soon as the shaking is detected.

With 15 seconds of warning, a surgeon could stop cutting or the average person could take cover.

De Groot said one example of the system being put to the test was in September when a 4.5 magnitude quake hit Southern California.

It takes the ShakeAlert system moments to decide whether to issue an alert.

During that earthquake, people that were within about 10 miles of the epicenter got the alert after the shaking was over. De Groot said that’s just a consequence of where someone happens to be when the quake hits.

But if someone is further away, the alert could arrive at the same time as the shaking or even a few seconds earlier to give people a chance to duck and cover.

ShakeAlert is fully operational in California, Oregon and Washington. While it isn’t available in Alaska, the state’s 2018 earthquake helped develop the system.

“There are a lot of people that went into the Anchorage School District and looked at how schools responded, and all of those things. And it gives us really good ideas about how to better engineer the built environment,” de Groot said.

Scientists also looked at the response of structures in the Anchorage area.

There isn’t a timeline of when ShakeAlert could be implemented in Alaska, but there has been discussion about expanding the system to Nevada and Alaska, specifically the Anchorage area after all the seismic station are installed in the current states, which may happen in the mid 2020′s.


Even if Alaska had ShakeAlert, Gardine said it isn’t an alternative to preparation.

Maybe to some degree, Gardine said, where Alaska excels in preparedness through building codes and experience with frequent encounters, it may help make up for the state not yet having a system like ShakeAlert.

He said, however, there’s also a danger to overconfidence, and ShakeAlert isn’t a substitute for preparation.

If people aren’t ready for a major earthquake, Gardine said 15 to 90 seconds is not going to solve any problems. “You’re not gonna be able to get enough water for the next few days. It’s definitely more of a tool for the right here, right now; just protect yourself for the next couple of minutes and start worrying about things later,” Gardine said. “Anything is better than nothing, which is what we have right now.”

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