Historical records help scientists pinpoint 1904 earthquake
By learning about strong earthquakes from the past, we can determine where and when they will occur in the future. Geophysics professor Carl Tape has put this theory to work, using historical instrument readings and records to learn more about a little-known 1904 earthquake.
“Every earthquake is a different story,” Tape said. “Characterizing them is a focus of my research.”
On Aug. 27, 1904 a large earthquake of about 7.4 in magnitude, struck somewhere in the Interior of Alaska. Until recently, there were no known written accounts of shaking from the earthquake. Tape and his collaborators have discovered five previously undiscovered accounts with details about the earthquake.
In the Interior, people might not be prepared for a large earthquake as there have not been any major ones in recent history. Understanding the 1904 earthquake could help people be better prepared for such an event today, according to Tape.
Earthquakes occur when two tectonic plates—the large masses of land that make up the ground—occasionally get stuck while sliding against each other. Eventually these stuck plates “slip” and release a lot of force, causing an earthquake.
“In the last few decades, we have stations that allow us to locate earthquakes fairly well. When you go back further in time like 1904, it gets harder,” Tape said.
Usually to learn about earthquakes from the past, scientists can look for evidence such as scars on rocks from faults, damaged structures (like chimneys) or evidence of tsunamis caused by earthquakes.
To understand the 1904 earthquake, Tape and other scientists combed through historical documents trying to find any “felt reports” or written records describing the earthquake. They were able to find five documents, including one from the diary of James Wickersham, who secured land that now makes up the UAF campus.
After compiling these felt reports and making an estimate for where the epicenter—the origin—of the earthquake was, they looked at instrumental data.
“I couldn’t believe it when I started looking at this earthquake that there was actual instrumental data to work with,” Tape said.
In 1904, the world had very recently started recording information about earthquakes and there were enough instruments to accurately record a large earthquake anywhere on Earth, according to Tape.
Using data recorded in 1904 by 45 stations around the world, Tape and other scientists were able to come up with a more accurate location for the epicenter. The team was also able to determine when the earthquake occurred to within 10 seconds. This surprised other seismology researchers, Tape said.
He had an activity for his presentation to show uncertainty.
“Raise your hand if your clock says it’s 7:02 right now. What about 7:03?” Tape asked the room. “Alright, we already have an uncertainty of sixty seconds of our clocks in this room.”
With modern instruments, an earthquake can be timed to within a tenth of a second to when it started, according to Tape.
Tape will be presenting his team’s research in the first Science For Alaska lecture on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Raven Landing Center, 1222 Cowles Street.
The lecture series will continue at 7 p.m. every Tuesday until March 7 at that location.