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A minor earthquake shook Ketchikan on Wednesday. Here’s why it’s relatively uncommon in Southeast Alaska




Readouts from six seismographs showing primary P waves and secondary S waves from Wednesday’s earthquake six miles down Carroll Inlet. (Drawing by the Alaska Earthquake Center)

Many people in Ketchikan and Mitlakatla heard and felt a small tremor Wednesday evening when a 2.5-magnitude earthquake struck Carol Inlet, about 15 miles northeast of the city. It is a relatively uncommon occurrence in the southern region.

Researchers have recorded more than 38,000 earthquakes in Alaska this year alone. But seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center Matt Jardine says they’re less common in the Southeast, especially near Ketchikan. He says only about 25 have been registered in the south of the country this year.

“So no one has heard of them, of course,” he said, “but most of them are actually concentrated — there’s a large fault system outside, the Queen Charlotte Fault, and most earthquakes have already occurred there.” “So no one ever felt it,”

Earthquakes near the southeast coast, where they can be felt, are rare, Jardine says.

So why does Southeast Alaska experience fewer earthquakes than other parts of the state? Jardine, for example, says the area has a smaller fault system than it does in Anchorage, for example. There are also much fewer people, and they are spread out. It also has to do with the kind of faults that run under southeast Alaska, Jardine says.

“Under Anchorage, this is where the Pacific plate subduction under North America takes place. Outside of Ketchikan, its faults are a little different,” he said. “They’re slipping, so they’re very similar to San Andreas — it’s actually the same general rift system, the Pacific Ocean (the plate) moving sideways into North America.”

He says that these side-slip faults tend to produce fewer earthquakes.

Frequently, a large earthquake on the Queen Charlotte Fault – a 7.5 on the Richter scale off the coast of Prince of Wales Island shook the area in 2013, and a smaller 6.0 in Glacier Bay National Park the following year was also widely felt. But neither of them caused extensive damage.

Finally, Jardine says, the earthquake risk in southeastern Alaska is slightly lower than in other parts of the state. He says the biggest threat to the region is not earthquakes, but tsunamis.

In particular, these will be tsunamis caused by landslides. As you know, with the very steep terrain, there is prone to landslides both above the beach and under the sea that can be caused by earthquakes. This can cause very large tsunamis with little warning.

One landslide-triggered tsunami occurred in Lituya Bay in 1958. After a 7.8-magnitude earthquake dumped 90 million tons of rock into the bay, the tsunami cut two square miles of forest at elevations of up to 1,700 feet.

The milder tremor on Wednesday, Jardine says, was a good reminder that earthquakes can strike anywhere in the state — and that people should be prepared to fall, cover, and carry on when the ground shakes.




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