Earthquakes and Volcanoes in Alaska

The Alaskan subduction zone—where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates collide—has generated more magnitude eight-plus earthquakes during the past century than any other zone in the world, as well as thousands of small earthquakes along with North America’s largest recorded volcanic eruptions. This makes it one of the best places to study the processes that govern subduction, earthquakes, and volcanism. Research efforts, however, have been severely hampered by a lack of seismometers, particularly offshore where the biggest earthquakes occur.

Geoffrey A. Abers, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is leading a team of researchers from eight universities to investigate the relationships between the observed earthquakes and the physical properties of interacting plates. The research will enable the much-needed characterization of potentially dangerous seismic and volcanic hazards in Alaska and similar geologic settings.

The project involves a major deployment of seismographs onshore and offshore Alaska, leveraging new technology for high-end seismic equipment on the sea floor. Seventy-five ocean bottom seismometers will be deployed from ships, with over $2 million being allocated for refurbishing the instruments and for four deep-sea cruises to deploy and recover them. An additional 30 high-end instruments will be deployed on land, on Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula. It is the first project of this scale in Alaska, covering an area where the second largest earthquake on record occurred as well as the largest volcanic eruption in the twentieth century. The research will uncover the dynamics of this region as well as areas that look geologically similar but have no record of giant earthquakes. Because of the zone’s systematic variability in earthquake and volcano behavior, the data, which will be made available to the public, is likely to revolutionize scientists’ understanding of subduction zones.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$1.5 Million spanning 3 years