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View from the Top: Michael West

State Seismologist and Director of the Alaska Earthquake Center


Photo by JR Anchetta

State Seismologist and Alaska Earthquake Center Director Michael West holds the actual helicorder of the March 27, 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.

The seismogram State Seismologist and Alaska Earthquake Center Director Michael West holds is the actual paper helicorder record from the March 27, 1964, Great Alaska Earthquake, recorded in Fairbanks. The paper holds twenty-four hours of seismic data. There were two seismic stations in Alaska in 1964—Fairbanks and Sitka. This is the actual record of the earthquake as recorded in Alaska.

According to the Alaska Earthquake Information Center website, the magnitude 9.2 earthquake is the second largest ever recorded in the world, and the duration of rupture was approximately four minutes.

The earthquake was felt throughout all of Alaska and in parts of Canada and Washington state and triggered landslides and avalanches. A tsunami fanned out from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii, Oregon, and California. The area of “significant damage,” according to the website, was 130,000 kilometers and the quake was felt over an area 1.3 million square kilometers. The damage totaled $300 million to $400 million in 1964 dollars, more than $2.3 billion in today’s dollars.

Earthquakes have never been far from the minds of Alaskans since, not only because of the cultural impact of the devastation and loss, but because of Alaska’s incredible amount of seismic activity. This seismic activity makes it an ideal location for earthquake research, hence the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

At the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake, West provides insight to Alaska’s earthquake history and seismic future, and shares a little bit about himself.


What brought you to Alaska? My wife, Krista, and I were living in New Mexico when a faculty job came up at the Geophysical institute at UAF. We jumped at the opportunity. The job was the catalyst, but Fairbanks was the draw. Fairbanks, and Alaska as a whole, has an incredible sense of place that encourages people to think big and live deliberately. This fit what we wanted in a community. It is hard to imagine raising our three boys anywhere else now.

What sparked your interest in seismology? As a physics undergraduate at Colorado College I took an intro geology course for fun. I soon discovered that the union of these two fields, geophysics, provided tools for understanding the natural hazards all around us. I was drawn to earthquake seismic data because it is so rich with information. Everything we want to know is recorded in seismograms—you just have to know how to tease it out.
How did you come to your current position as State Seismologist? I spent my first several years at UAF pursuing projects in Russia, Mexico, and Bolivia. I was also part of the Alaska Volcano Observatory. I found myself drawn increasingly to practical earthquake applications and the systems and personnel that make it possible. The most compelling earthquake is always the one that just happened. In 2012 I was approached to serve as State Seismologist and director of the Alaska Earthquake Center. I feel fortunate to be involved in something that directly impacts the state and is tied so closely to the landscape around us.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Great Quake—how did that event shape seismic research? The 1964 earthquake was a watershed moment in earth science. The earthquake helped prove the idea of plate tectonics and demonstrated to the world that Alaska was the place to study these processes. 1964 changed the course of development in Alaska. Though the earthquake’s impact was tragic and a huge economic setback just five years after statehood, it prompted very forward-looking decisions as we rebuilt. Most Alaskans now understand that earthquakes are part of our landscape and that developments large and small can be built wisely if the earthquake hazards are actually understood at the outset.

The most ambitious seismic project yet is currently ramping up in Alaska. “EarthScope” is a national project that is temporarily blanketing the state with seismic instrumentation on a grid spaced at fifty miles. We have an unprecedented opportunity right now to leverage this project in ways that will provide earthquake monitoring in western Alaska and on the North Slope where we do not have sufficient information to understand why earthquakes occur.

Do you think Alaska is prepared for another quake of that magnitude, were it to take place? We will never be fully prepared for an earthquake like 1964. But if we track seismic activity well over the course of years, we can develop a good understanding of what types of earthquakes to anticipate in different areas. This has not been done across much of the state. As a result it is hard to make well-informed development decisions in many places. I believe this is an increasing liability in Alaska.

What do you like most about your work with the Alaska Earthquake Center, the Geophysical Institute, and UAF? Because Alaska is home to four out of five earthquakes in the United States, it is a very rewarding place to be a seismologist. I work with a spectacular team of eighteen people who maintain the seismic network and analyze earthquakes. Last year we reported 28,000 earthquakes in the state. Of these, 101 were felt by people. We never know what is going to happen on a given day. When an earthquake or eruption or tsunami occurs, the adrenaline is high because we know that people are counting on us to provide the right information quickly. This is what drives us.

Can earthquakes be predicted with any reliability? Earthquakes cannot yet be meaningfully forecast. Major advances are occurring, however, in Earthquake Early Warning. California, Oregon, and Washington are currently implementing systems that can allow several tens of seconds of advance warning before strong shaking begins—enough time to shut down machinery and get out of harm’s way. A similar system in Japan alerted many residents to the 2011 earthquake shortly before the shaking began. The prevalence of earthquakes in the state, combined with our unique infrastructure and single points of failure, make Alaska an ideal place to pursue such a system.

This first appeared in the April 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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