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Cooper Landing Lakes hold clues about the region’s earthquakes


Lake Kenai is very calm. But right after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the lake was hit by a tsunami that washed away the bridge there and left plump layers of sediment.

These layers are useful today for scientists looking to learn more about past and future earthquakes.

Like Peter Heisler. He is a research geologist with the Alaska-based US Geological Survey. He spoke to a crowd at Cooper Landing this week about his research on earthquakes in the area.

“It was actually studies of the 1964 earthquake that gave birth to modern seismologists,” he said.

Seismic investigators want to learn more about when large earthquakes occur, in part to prepare for the future. Engineers need to learn more about how the earth shakes so they can build infrastructure that is up to the task.

One way to get this information is through paleontology.

“Paleo means ancient, and ‘seismology’ means earthquakes. So it understands the frequency of ancient earthquakes by studying lakes,” Heisler said.

Sediments on the sides of lakes, such as Kenai Lake, vibrate during large earthquakes. Then it floats to the bottom and settles in layers.

Geologists can extract cores from the bottom of those lakes to get snapshots of events that have taken place nearby, in the last 90 years or so. They do this by sticking what is essentially a long pipe into the ground to get a cross-section of the rock layers.

They can also use so-called “chirps,” which release sound waves to reflect the different layers beneath the bottoms of lakes.

“The one thing we really like about ’em is that they have annual plating,” Heisler said. They are often called varves, and they look a lot like tree rings. You have roughly an annual record of sedimentation in a lake, based on these things.”

Drake Singleton is a Mendenhall Fellow at the US Geological Survey. He said the information is really helpful.

While geologists cannot predict exactly when earthquakes will occur, they can use the information to develop hazard maps for engineering purposes.

“As frightening as it is to go through an earthquake of this magnitude and intense shaking, these events are really good tools for us to understand the response to geology,” Singleton said.

The search is not without logistical challenges.

“Last year, we were digging in this part of the lake, and we actually got a fish inside our core tube,” Heisler said.

The Geological Survey will transport cores from Lake Kenai and Skylac to a laboratory to learn more about the 2018 South Central earthquake.

Much of the cores taken in the past are stored in the old Sam’s Club building in Anchorage, Heissler said. He said that this basic library includes a section of the first well discovered in Prudhoe Bay.


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