Alaska has a ‘first-rate’ earthquake monitoring system. The hard part is defending it against weather, bears and funding uncertainty

More than 250 stations make up Alaska’s seismic monitoring network. Each presents its own challenges.

GLACIER VIEW — On a grassy schoolyard overlooking the Matanuska Glacier, a group of eminent seismologists from around the globe jumped up and down. They stamped their feet into the grass as Natalia Ruppert, a researcher with the Alaska Earthquake Center, counted to 10.

“OK, stop,” she said. “I think that will show something.”

It did: Buried beneath the wheat-colored grass sits a seismic monitor so sensitive it can pick up the echoes of nuclear tests a half world away.

The station, tucked into the corner of a school playground, is known as M23K, one of more than 250 stations that make up Alaska’s seismic monitoring network.

The scientists were on a “field trip” from a major seismology conference happening in Anchorage last week, and had come to see a piece of a system that generates powerful data used both by scientists to plumb the mysteries of the Earth’s interior, and by public safety personnel to alert people to the location, depth and magnitude of earthquakes.

Operating such a network in Alaska isn’t simple. Scientists must maintain each of the sites, supplying power, connectivity and repairing damage done by Alaska’s ferocious weather and wildlife. It costs millions each year to do it, money that has largely come from federal grant funding.

In recent years, Alaska’s network has expanded dramatically, thanks to the acquisition of about 100 monitoring stations brought to Alaska as part of a National Science Foundation project. The stations were supposed to be temporary, but the Alaska Earthquake Center, with last-minute funding, bought out the sites. They are now among about 250 operated directly by the center.

“This was an opportunity to achieve, finally, an actual statewide network like other places in the country have,” state seismologist Michael West said.


That’s important because Alaska is both the site of quakes that are potentially devastating to humans and scientifically of interest to researchers trying to understand the processes behind them.

Other states such as California may have more sophisticated systems, West said.

“What we have — we have the ability to collect data, and we also have those actual geologic events happening here,” he said.

Alaska now has an extensive monitoring system in a place where a lot of seismic activity actually happens, said West.

Alaska is known for its extensive, high-quality earthquake monitoring, said Jeroen Ritsema, a geophysics and seismology professor at the University of Michigan, who was along for the conference field trip.

“It’s a first-rate system,” he said.

The instruments are so sensitive they can “see all the world’s waves pushing on ocean shores,” said Richard Aster, a professor of geophysics at Colorado State University. Everything from a moose walking by to a huge earthquake in Japan is recorded.

It’s the “the planet’s neighborhood watch system,” he said.

Each of the hundreds of stations sending data presents its own challenges. Station M23K is an easy one — it’s on the site of a school and accessible via the road network. Many others are scattered across some of the most remote sites in Alaska. There are seismic stations on uninhabited Aleutian Islands, on the Coleen River in Northeast Alaska and deep in the Brooks Range.

In order to function, the stations need an uninterrupted source of power to record and transmit data, even as they sit unattended in locations with with months of darkness above the Arctic Circle, or in coastal mountains that can receive 30 feet of snow per winter. Batteries similar to those used in a car work, but carrying them to the sites — most only accessible by helicopter — adds up to an expensive maintenance proposition. Sometimes lithium batteries also work, but are more expensive.

“The largest component of the budget is helicopter time,” Ruppert said.

Sites near population centers use cell modems to transmit data back to the desks of researchers, including some located in villages that are able to link into infrastructure offered by a school or clinic. Other stations use radio networks. As a last resort, satellite communication can work too — but they use a lot of power, according to Ruppert. Speed is key. Data is transmitted to the lab “in seconds,” she said.


The data is all open source and public, so anyone can see it and use it, West said.

And then there’s the threat of wildlife. The seismic instruments are buried underground using a bore hole or a hand-dug hole, depending on the spot, Ruppert said. The surrounding caps are designed to be vertical, with as few places as possible for bears to pull on.

“Definitely, they would come and try to rip this apart,” Ruppert said, gesturing at the box that covers buried equipment at station M23K. “Recently we’ve been replacing these plastic wellhead boxes with steel. Steel withstands bear forces better.”

Bears that manage to open the door of the shelter where batteries and other electrical components are housed wreak havoc. The worst-case scenario? Bears disconnect a sensor cable and seismic data stops transmitting, Ruppert said. Some stations have been relocated after repeat bear problems.

“Yeah, so I guess, lack of sunlight, large snow, lots of bears,” she said. “Those are kind of the three issues that we deal with.”

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It costs roughly $5 million per year to keep the network operating, West said. The Alaska Earthquake Center has an overall budget of roughly $7 million. In the past, the state budget has contributed to the earthquake center’s monitoring operations, West said. But in recent years, the money has come largely from federal appropriations.

“It is fair to say our funding is extremely tenuous,” West said. “It’s always ups and downs. We look out for ourselves.”

Much of that federal funding has come through U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who supported the 2019 acquisition of more earthquake sensors for Alaska. And earlier this year, Murkowski co-sponsored a bill that would send $175.4 million to the federal agencies responsible for long-term earthquake risk reduction, though it’s not clear how much of that money will end up with the Alaska Earthquake Center.

Murkowski’s office did not respond to a question about her support for the seismic monitoring network.

On the horizon: The possibility of an early earthquake warning system, like the ones in California, Washington and Oregon. Such a system would use statewide monitoring capability to deliver a text message to users seconds before the strongest shaking arrives.

Early warning systems don’t predict earthquakes. Rather, they’re meant to give people just a bit more time to get into a safe position to ride out the quake.

This summer, about a third of Alaska’s stations will get a visit and some kind of maintenance, which could include replacing batteries or repairing damage. The season started Sunday, Ruppert said. There’s no time to waste.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.