AMSS 2018: All Shook Up

Sometimes, conferences don’t always go according to plan.

Take, for instance, the temporary loss of a number of federal agency employees for the first day of the 2018 Alaska Marine Science Symposium. Due to government shutdown, many of our colleagues, including two keynote speakers, were unable to travel to the symposium.  As of today, more folks are arriving, but alas, other folks weren’t able to change travel plans.  Due to this, we are missing out on an important aspect of this symposium: inter-agency, institute, and community collaboration.

These things do occasionally happen; however, what happened on Monday night was a bit more unusual for many of us. Several folks at the Alaska SeaLife Center are currently staying in a house we were able to rent as a group for this event.  At approximately midnight last night, I awoke to feel my bed shaking under me. Well, not shaking so much as swirling. So, even though it took a moment to realize what was happening, I was more surprised to see my lab mate Renae standing in the doorway.  Eventually, the shaking stopped and we gathered in the hallway and it was clear—we’d just been in an Earthquake.

What just happened?

Now we began to evaluate what to do.  Living in a tsunami zone in Oregon myself, I personally advocated for caution over complacency, and we soon made our way inland a bit to a parking lot by the university. And we waited. Eventually we got the all clear that while Anchorage was affected by the earthquake, we weren’t at risk for a tsunami.

However, our coworkers and friends in Kodiak and Seward were.

In what I’d consider a particularly unique lab-bonding moment, we returned to the house and hunkered down in a sort of late-night vigil to figure out what was happening. While the news, surprisingly, wasn’t particularly informative, we were able to monitor social media for updates. Thankfully, the tsunami warnings were eventually ended and no damage was done to any of the Alaskan coastal communities.

Keeping up with the news feed to find out if Seward and the ASLC were facing a tsunami

Now since the earthquake was a whopping 7.9 magnitude, the question is: why didn’t the quake cause larger destruction?

Even though there were evacuations and reports of bays emptying, nothing came to fruition and no buildings were damaged.  The reason we were very fortunately spared destruction and perhaps tragedy all had to do with geology. And since I am writing this from a marine science conference, it can’t hurt to get into a bit of oceanography. Much like the 2013 in Juneau, the quake we experienced was a slip-strike quake. This occurs where two tectonic plates slide past each other horizontally, creating an earthquake but not much potential for a tsunami.

Normal, Reverse (megathrust) and Slipe-Strike faults. [Image: South Caroline Department of Natural Resources]

The most destructive tsunamis, on the other hand, such as the 2011 tsunamis in Japan and nearby regions, are caused by megathrust, or reverse fault quakes, where one portion of the Earth’s crust is abruptly uplifted, forcefully pushing upwards on the water column. The force of this propagates outwardly in a wave pattern, eventually hitting surrounding shores with immense speed and force.

In short, we were lucky. This event of course, raised questions as to how we could have prepared for something like this. I, for instance, have multiple tsunami ‘go-packs’ at home, and being a paranoid grad student, I also back up all of my PhD work online weekly, in the case that the building I work in is compromised in some way. If you live in a coastal area, you’re interested in tsunami preparedness, there is no better time than now to start thinking about it.

I’d suggest checking out a resource guide I put together some years ago:

You can never be too prepared!

Written by: Shea Steingass

Featured Image from USGS (

Leave a Reply