by Erin Kirkland
One June evening in 2011 our family had just settled in after a busy day exploring the beaches of Homer, Alaska. Ever been to Homer? It’s got a sandy beach near the “Old Town” section that we like to walk from our rental cottage and play on the driftwood or dig for treasures near the waterline.
We had just put our son, then six, to bed when we heard the tsunami warning siren start winding up. It was not uncommon to hear the siren for weekly drills reminding people what to do should an earthquake generate the huge waves tsunamis make. But those were usually at noon on Wednesday – NOT 8 p.m. on a Thursday night.
“This is an announcement from the National Tsunami Warning Center – an earthquake has occurred in (I forget the location now, but out along the Aleutian Islands chain several hundred miles away). A tsunami has been generated. All persons are ordered to evacuate to higher ground immediately. This is not a drill.”
Immediately we recalled scenes from earlier that spring, when an earthquake in Fukushima, Japan triggered a tsunami that devastated the area. There was no way we were going to be stuck in that situation. We grabbed our son, sleeping bag and all, and put him in the car. Wallets, keys, and laptops followed and up the steep hills of Homer we went, hoping everyone staying on the Homer Spit was listening to the instructions as well.
Turns out the warning should not have been triggered, that a tsunami had NOT been generated, and we were back in the cottage less than an hour later. Our nerves, however, did not settle down until well past midnight. And here’s why.
What is a tsunami, and why were we right to be so scared?
A tsunami is a series of giant waves caused by earthquakes of volcanic eruptions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Out in the ocean, the waves are not so large, but as they come closer to land, they build, higher and higher, as the depth decreases. Far out to sea these waves can travel as fast as a jet plane, slowing only when they reach shallow areas, so you can imagine the power and force for destruction.
Why do we need to worry about tsunamis?
Alaska, like many other coastal areas of the world, is located in an area with many earthquakes (up to 1,000 each month) and volcanoes, and thus, the potential for violent earth activity is high. Many people live along the beaches of Alaska, finding them convenient for work and play (not to mention beautiful scenery), but the Last Frontier has had a history of tsunami events.
The most well-known of these happened on March 27, 1964, when a 9.2 magnitude quake shook much of Alaska for almost five minutes and caused immense destruction, and an enormous tsunami that wiped out many villages and communities, and left Alaskans reeling for months. The largest-recorded earthquake in United States history, this “Good Friday” event caused the state to look at creating systems to warn and evacuate should it happen again.
How can we learn more about tsunamis and earthquakes?
A good place to start is right here in Alaska, at the National Tsunami Warning Center facility in Palmer. The center works hard to provide information, warnings, and drills on a regular basis, and is eager to show off their gadgets and staff during tours every Friday afternoon. Call 907-745-4212 if you have a group larger than six people; any less than that just requires you to show up. Check the website for tour times and be prepared to show government-issued ID.
The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center also has a comprehensive exhibit about the earthquake of 1964 and subsequent tsunami. In the Imaginarium Discovery Center kids can create their own tsunami waves at a hands-on exhibit, and learn more about the magnitude measurement of earthquakes. It’s both fascinating and sobering at the same time.
In the town of Valdez along Prince William Sound, earthquake and tsunami history is still very visible, since the 1964 quake all but destroyed the original townsite. You can walk the Old Town Valdez site with foundations and equipment still visible, then head back to town and visit the Valdez Museum for more information, including video, photographs, and memories from people who were there in 1964.
Headed to Hawai’i Island soon? Do not miss the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo for an interesting and very relational approach to tsunamis across the Pacific Ocean. Yes, Alaskans, we DO have more than a casual connection to Hawai’i’s tsunamis. Some of them have come from us. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and is best for kids 6+.
And – Heads Up! NOAA, DHS, and other agencies will be conducting an annual test of the tsunami warning system on Wednesday, March 29 between 10:15 and 10:45 a.m. You may see or hear that a tsunami has been generated and the warning signals may broadcast. But as the folks there say “Chill, it’s a drill!” and an excellent opportunity for your kids’ schools, your workplace, and those at home to rehearse what they’d do if faced with an actual tsunami emergency.
Erin Kirkland is publisher of AKontheGO.com and author of the Alaska On the Go family guidebook series. She lives in Anchorage.