Alaska News

Prominent Alaska geologist dies at 97; was at work on Portage Lake ice during 1964 earthquake

Editor's note: This article is adapted from a lengthier article by Heather Saucier published in Explorer, the online journal of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

Recently the American Association of Petroleum Geologists announced it would honor the organization's first 100 female members to commemorate its centennial in 2017.

The first woman featured is Ruth A.M. Schmidt, 97, of Anchorage, who passed away on March 29, just two days after the 50th anniversary of the 1964 earthquake.

Schmidt, one of few female geoscientists at the time, earned her master's (1939) and doctorate (1948) degrees in geology from Columbia University.

She was among five scientists working on frozen Portage Lake as the 9.2 earthquake sloshed the lake back and forth, a phenomenon known as a seiche, causing the ice to break apart around the shoreline.

At the time, Schmidt's team was drilling holes through 3 feet of ice to measure water depths.

Mike Mitchell, now a retired geologist in Anchorage and one of the students who assisted Schmidt on the expedition, recalled when the rumbling began.


"We didn't have time to do anything." Mitchell recalled. "We just kind of rode the ice, fighting to stay on our feet and not fall down. The ice was cracking and we could hear these big booming sounds."

Avalanches rushed down the surrounding mountains, kicking up gusts of snow and reducing visibility to 10 feet. In a rush to beat the fast-approaching dusk, they steered their Arctic Cat snowmachine toward the northwest shore. However, the lake was still sloshing and the ice near shore was too fragmented for the group to cross to dry land.

Undecided about whether to stay on the lake until they could be rescued or try another path to the shore, Schmidt advocated the view that "we need to get the heck off this lake," Mitchell recalled. The group made its way toward Bear Valley, where the ice remained more intact and they eventually reached the shore.

"Ruth was certainly the one we listened to as a source of age and wisdom and calmness. She was sort of a guiding hand in the group," Mitchell said. "I think she handled herself very well. There was no panic."

As they struggled in the dark to find a safe haven, they saw a display of orange and pink flickering lights in the sky. Unsure if they had experienced an earthquake or a cold war nuclear attack, the group finally came upon an occupied Alaska Railroad patrolman's cabin, where a radio was eventually able to pick up news confirming an earthquake.

The orange and pink lights were from tsunami-caused fires burning in Whittier.

After a sleepless night of aftershocks, the group was picked up by helicopter and saw the destroyed road and rail line below as they were ferried to Anchorage.

Sally Gibert, a land planner and geographer who met Schmidt in 1974, recalls the geologist expressing disappointment for not experiencing the event on land, where the rumbles and asphalt waves would have been much more intense -- suitable for an adventurous geologist.

Schmidt soon made her own waves, though. She was appointed federal coordinator of an interagency group of roughly 50 earth scientists tasked with documenting the surface deformations, cracks, landslides and other failures in Anchorage before rebuilding could begin.

In the article "Geology in a Hurry," published in the October 1964 Geotimes, Schmidt described how a tug of war erupted between her team of geologists, who insisted on documenting areas of vulnerability to future risks, and private and public parties who wanted to quickly bulldoze the cracks and rebuild so life could go on.

Angry editorials from developers appeared in the Anchorage Daily Times blaming geologists for unnecessary holdups. However, all data was gathered and made available to the public by April 30 -- roughly a month after the quake.

"No one likes to be told his house and business are on landslide areas, but if they are, how much better is it to know it?" Schmidt wrote in 1964.

"Will it be economically feasible to stabilize any of these slopes? Should these areas be turned into recreational areas only? Time will tell ... but geologists have done their part as citizens to see that everyone has been made aware of the hazards of building on landslides and similar weakened and unstable areas."

Read Ruth Schmidt's obituary here: .

By Heather Saucier

AAPG Explorer