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Rudi Kiefer: Earthquakes have the potential to do major damage in Alaska
Rudi Kiefer

Knik Arm is the estuary where Alaska’s Knik River meets Pacific Ocean water. Adjacent to Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage, Earthquake Park shows the physical impact of the quake that struck there on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Cliffs as tall as 65 feet and buckling ground are a reminder of the violent movement that took place when North America’s most powerful quake destroyed parts of Anchorage, killing 100 people.

A week ago on Friday, park visitors got an unexpected demonstration as another major quake rocked the city at 8:30 a.m. local time. Buildings shook, glass panes crashed, and roadways heaved up and down. A driver taking the airport off-ramp on Minnesota Drive found himself stranded when the highway collapsed all around his vehicle. 

Senior citizens were reminded of the 1964 quake and its horrifying scenes. Back then, the harbor suddenly emptied itself of water, just like we saw in more recent footage from Thailand. It’s the prelude to a tsunami. The killer wave followed immediately, overturning ocean-going freighters and washing away everything in its path. This year, there was no tsunami, and thankfully the death toll from the quake was zero. 

Alaska isn’t the only high-risk zone in western North America. Just 200 miles outside of Anchorage, the ocean floor drops sharply from a few hundred feet of depth to 15,000 feet. This enormous break in the earth’s crust, separating the Pacific Plate from the American Plate, runs south all the way to Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. San Francisco, California, was ruined in 1906 by the associated San Andreas fault. Some time ago, I was standing on that fault line where it crosses Highway 198 between Coalinga and San Lucas. It looks like a harmless dry creek bed, dropping only a few feet, but the tilting trees and fence posts nearby tell of the ongoing movement of the ground. 

Anchorage was spared loss of life Nov. 30. But future events may not be as limited. There are about 300,000 residents in that area. Population density is much greater in the earthquake zones of the lower 48 states. My main worry is about California’s San Francisco – Oakland – San Jose region. According to, the area is home to 8.7 million people. This makes the San Francisco Bay area the likely theater for a major geologic disaster.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at