Michael West: State Seismologist Alaska Earthquake Center, Director.

Author:Anderson, Tasha
Position:View from the Top

The seismogram State Seismologist and Alaska Earthquake Center Director Michael West holds (facing page) 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.


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