Fairbanks seismologist hooked on quakes since childhood

August 25, 2018
In this Friday, Aug. 17, 2018 photo, Matt Gardine, operations seismologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Earthquake Center, poses for a photo outside his office in Fairbanks, Alaska. Earthquakes have a way of coming at night. That's not a geological truth, just something Gardine has noticed during his shifts as an on-call seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center. An earthquake map created by his wife Lea Gardine, the center's outreach coordinator, hangs on the wall behind him. (Sam Friedman/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner via AP)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Earthquakes have a way of coming at night. That’s not a geological truth, just something Matt Gardine has noticed during his shifts as an on-call seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center.

With eight-hour workdays and 24 hours a day on-call, there’s just a good probability the on-call seismologist will get an earthquake alert at an inconvenient time.

For example, at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 24, 2016, Gardine was awake putting his daughter to bed and had just been getting back into bed to get a few hours of sleep himself when he felt the earth shake, a seismic alarm clock that told him it was time to get to work.

“There was no point in going back to sleep, because if I felt it then certainly others felt it,” he said.

A few seconds after he felt the shake, an alert on his phone sounded to inform him that the quake had been centered in Cook Inlet, more than 250 miles to the south. The event, known as the Iniskin earthquake, was eventually found to have a magnitude of 7.1

Gardine, 35, is office operations seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. He’s part of a staff of 17 people, about half of whom are seismologists. Gardine’s work marries two interests he’s had since childhood, computers and seismology. Recently, he made an earthquake animation that was popular online. It showed how shaking from the largest-recorded earthquake on the North Slope propagated out across Alaska’s seismic sensors.

Gardine has been interested in seismology since he watched a National Geographic episode about earthquakes and volcanoes that his grandfather taped when he was growing up in Denver.

“I think that was the only VHS tape I ever wore out. I’d rewatch it over and over, every day after school,” he said.

A pair of fourth grade research projects — one on crocodiles and one on volcanoes — helped solidify his interest in seismology.

“That pretty much affirmed it for me. I don’t want to be a biologist, but earthquakes, there’s something about that. I always kind of knew after that,” he said.

Gardine went to college at Colorado School of Mines and came to Fairbanks for graduate school. While at the University of Alaska Fairbanks he met another seismology student whom he would go on to marry. Today both Matt and his wife, Lea Gardine, work at the earthquake center. Lea is the center’s outreach coordinator.

Alaska experiences about 40,000 earthquakes a year, more than all of the earthquakes in Lower 48 combined and about 10 percent of all the earthquakes on the planet, Gardine said. Most are very small. The on-call seismologists get a phone alert when there’s a quake of magnitude 3.5 around Fairbanks or Anchorage or a magnitude 4 elsewhere in Alaska or a magnitude 5 in the seismologically active but sparsely populated Aleutian islands.

When awakened by a phone notification of an earthquake, the on-call seismologist reviews the information from automated sensors, which approximate the magnitude and location of the quake. Within about 15 minutes, the on-call seismologist tries to send out revised information about the size and the scale of the quake.

As the minutes after an earthquake tick by, the on-call seismologist contacts people and institutions likely to be affected by the quake, such as the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and begins to compile reports from people who felt the quake. These human reports are important because they answer questions about an earthquake that the earthquake center’s sensors can’t.

“When people hear about an earthquake, the question they always ask is, ‘What was the magnitude?’” Gardin said. “We can tell them the magnitude, but that’s not really the question they’re asking, especially if they felt it. The question is, ‘How much shaking did I feel?’ ‘What does that mean to me, that kind of shaking?’”

Magnitude gives a rough approximation of an earthquake’s power, but how people experience it depends on factors such as whether they’re on hard bedrock that doesn’t shake as much or soft soils that shake more, he said. In the 2016 Iniskin quake, neighborhoods within a few miles of each other in Anchorage experienced markedly different levels of shaking based on the composition of the ground beneath them.

Gardine wasn’t the on-duty seismologist when the magnitude 6.4 quake hit the North Slope on Aug. 12. But when he heard about the quake, he knew it would be a good one to illustrate with an animated map that shows energy from an earthquake dissipating out from the epicenter. Gardine made a computer program to generate this kind of graphic a few years ago, but the animations didn’t look very impressive because of a California-sized hole without sensors in northern and western Alaska.

A set of temporary sensors installed last year by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology allows for viewers to see the movement spread across the state. In Gardine’s graphic, a label displaying the time flashes through the minutes between 6:57 a.m. and 7:27 a.m. Aug. 12, while circles that show the locations of seismic sensors in Alaska flash different shades of brown, based on the degree of the ground shaking there.

Besides making a pretty light show, this type of animation helps the general public better understand earthquakes, which is a core part of the Alaska Earthquake Center’s mission, Gardine said.

“Many scientific plots that come out are dense. They can be hard to interpret if you’re not a scientist. We wanted something that was user-friendly. As seismologists, yeah, we know that earthquake energy radiates out from the source at a certain speed,” he said. “But that’s not always intuitive to the general public. This is an easy way of explaining.”


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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