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The closest people to the 8.2 earthquake | Sports and outdoors


What if the biggest earthquake the country has seen in the last half century happened when you were getting ready to sleep in the only cabin on a small island in the North Pacific Ocean. What if the epicenter was only 50 miles away?

An earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale occurred at 10:15 p.m. Alaska time on July 28, 2021. The people closest to the rupture of the Aleutian mega-region were biologists living on Chute Island this summer.

Chowiet Island, a small spot in the North Pacific Ocean, is part of the Alaska Marine National Wildlife Refuge, which includes the sweep of the entire Aleutian Islands.

The crew of Tiglax dumped Katie Stoner and Brianna Budd off Chuet Island in early May. Their duties on the green island are to climb its cliffs and to continue studies of moors, oaklets, puffins, and other seabirds that biologists have practiced for years.

Stoner and Budd live in what they describe in a satellite email as “a small rustic cabin with no plumbing, no wires and just one appliance (propane stove and oven).”

The cabins are located in swampy apartments on the island’s lowlands, 90 feet above sea level. Except for a brief resupply visit from the shelter ship, Stoner and Buddy won’t see anyone else this summer.

Here is the earthquake story, relayed via satellite email from Heather Rayner, a supervisory wildlife biologist at Alaska Marine National Wildlife Refuge in Homer:

On the evening of July 28, Stoner had retired to her bed by 10 p.m. Buddy was about to brush her teeth when Stoner asked if Buddy had felt an earthquake.

Soon the shaking intensified. Bodhi shouted, “Out, out the door!”

Once they reached the deck, they noticed the cabin swaying. They heard the clatter of things falling from the shelves.

“Our first thought was this was big!” Stoner said.

Looking at the nearby Kateekuk Island, they saw a huge slab of rock breaking off and falling into the water. Another island, further away, was surrounded by a halo of dust (they later believed that the dust they saw and tasted was not from landslides, but from rocks rubbing together due to extraordinary ground movement).

The women estimated the initial shaking, which seemed to last forever, probably shook their island and rolled for less than a minute.

The ocean was only 250 yards from the cabin door. They needed to get to higher ground (the island’s highest peak is 800 feet) in case a rupture under the ocean floor pushed the tsunami their way.

“We didn’t take the time to tell anyone (via the satellite phone or satellite) that there was an earthquake,” Stoner said. “We knew from the sense that it was big and close enough that we might not have much time before the wave arrived.”

Between jerks that froze them motionless, they returned to the cabin and grabbed a satellite phone, their shoes, and a computer with all the bird information they had collected so far this summer. Both pushed energy bars into their packs and then filled their water bottles from the deck’s rain-collecting system.

They also stuffed sleeping bags into their bags and started making a path behind the cabin. They estimated that they were on the hillside within about two minutes of the first time they felt the earthquake.

Pausing about 300 feet above sea level, they used their satellite transmitter to communicate with Lisa Spitler, who works at the refuge on Adak Island, in the middle of the Aleutian Range a few hundred miles to the west.

Spitler texted them that the earthquake was indeed devastating – “8.2! It is located 30 nautical miles from us,” and that a tsunami warning was in effect.

Fearing to continue climbing to the top of the peaks during aftershocks which were also great earthquakes, the women remained on a platform of ferns and curved blades of rye grass. They tucked into their sleeping bags and stared into the endless ocean. The sky darkened.

“Sea lions were calling, peregrine falcons swaying, sparrows going about their nightly routine, unconcerned with the aftershocks we were seeing,” Stoner said.

The women remained on the slope of the hill until about one in the morning. Then the light on the satellite transmitter flashes green. Spitler said researchers at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer determined that the giant quake did not generate a deadly wave. Everything was clear.

Using a small flashlight in what was then the full blackness of the night, they crept through ferns and rocks back to their hut. Bode went to the propane tank outside and twisted the valve to shut it off in case the burner might leak. Then they turned the lamp inside.

“The floor was covered with fallen cans, dishes, and spices, while equipment fell off shelves and empty bags fell off the rafters,” Stoner said. “Surprisingly, the only thing broken was the handle of one of our coffee mugs.”

After cleaning the cabin enough to give them some space and then packing chargers and more clothes in their backpacks in case they had to leave again, the women crawled into their beds.

The earthquake resulted in hundreds of aftershocks – the largest being 6.1. Boddy and Stoner had a shake every half hour, which caused a spike in their adrenal systems.

We waited impatiently for dawn and tried really hard not to think about the vibrations,” Stoner wrote. “This was further complicated by the gusts of wind hitting the cabin and causing small tremors and larger moments of fear.”

The women are now safe and eager to check the effects of the earthquake on the nests of the birds they are studying. They also noticed “a strong smell, like animal decomposition, but they don’t know why yet,” Stoner said.

As the “shivers” fade, Stoner and Budd will continue their search routine and summer life on their island. Tiglax is scheduled to select biologists and return them to Homer at the end of the season, in early September 2021.

Since the late 1970s, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has offered this column free of charge in collaboration with the UAF research community. This year marks the institute’s 75th anniversary. Ned Rozell [email protected] is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute.





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