New legislation improves earthquake preparedness in Alaska

Field engineer Scott Dalton adjusts a radio communications link at a seismic station south of Cantwell. (Photo by Ian Dickson/Alaska Earthquake Center)

Congress passed a bill Tuesday to improve how the country prepares for earthquakes.

Michael West, who directs the Alaska Earthquake Center, said this legislation renews an existing law. But West said it’s more important and exciting than it sounds.

“This legislation reauthorizes programs that have existed for the better part of 40 years, but need tweaking and updates through time. But it hasn’t been authorized now for several years, and when programs aren’t authorized they begin to fall apart over time,” West said.

The prior version of the legislation expired nearly 10 years ago. West said that allowed some federal agencies to let earthquake preparedness creep down the priority list.

West said one important update involves calculating the financial risk from earthquakes. He said those studies are important for allocating funding for earthquake programs. But in the past, the studies ignored the potential damage from tsunamis, which has made Alaska’s financial risk look unrealistically low.

“Imagine considering a 1964-type earthquake but ignoring the tsunami component. That would be ridiculous,” West said.

West said the legislation, which now awaits the president’s signature, will also help Alaska implement the latest technology to monitor earthquakes. He said GPS instruments allow researchers to watch plate tectonics play out in real time. They are being widely used in other west coast states, but Alaska has lagged in installing the new technology. He said the new bill will make it easier for researchers to justify the expense of using GPS instruments in Alaska.