Alaska’s earthquake watchdog logs off

Alaska’s surface is wrinkled with active fault lines. The state’s southern coast follows the seam that separates the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, branching west from British Columbia and following the arc of the Aleutian Islands. This is where the Pacific Plate slips under and grinds past its neighbor, like one car scraping against another as it backs out of an impossibly tight parking space. 

Earthquakes are detected every fifteen minutes on average in Alaska, making it by far the most seismically active US state. When an earthquake strikes, seismic stations—there are hundreds across Alaska—send reports to the Alaska Earthquake Center, in Fairbanks. If the event clears a certain magnitude threshold, determined by its distance from communities, the network triggers an automated text message alarm sent to the Center’s employees. 

Often, these texts came to the phone of Ian Dickson. Until late October, Dickson served as a communications specialist for the Earthquake Center, a position he entered with neither intention nor seismological expertise. In 2003, he enrolled in an MFA program in nonfiction writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, shipped his belongings north, and rode his bike to the campus from Port Townsend, Washington. Even though he hated the cold and the dark, he felt rooted by relationships in Alaska. He stuck around after graduation, and in 2010, he got an admin position at the Earthquake Center, which is housed at the university. When a new state seismologist pushed the organization to increase its outreach on social media, Dickson raised his hand. “He was looking at my English degree and trying to steer me away from technical stuff,” Dickson said, laughing. “I was like, well, I feel like I do this better than anyone else we have.” He launched the Earthquake Center’s Twitter and Facebook accounts in 2013.

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Alaska’s 740,000 residents are spread sparsely across the state, and most earthquakes rumble far from towns and cities. Long-term residents remember what dramatic tectonic events can do when they come close: in 1964, the second-largest earthquake recorded in world history struck Anchorage, leveling the city and sending roaring tsunamis down the West Coast. The disasters killed 115 people in Alaska and 16 others in Oregon and California. But Dickson thinks that for many, awareness has faded. “Everyone in Alaska has felt earthquakes, and most have felt large ones. But it’s been a long time since we had a fatality from one,” he said. “There’s a genuine concern that people underestimate the risk.”

For the past six years, every time Dickson received an earthquake text, he would post the news on the Center’s social media accounts. He’d share when and where the earthquake took place, followed by notes on how to keep safe, projected aftershocks, or context from other events in Alaskan history. Alerts tended to come in at night, and so he kept his phone at full volume while he slept in his log cabin. If he received texts while outside walking his dog in subzero temperatures, he raced to tweet before the cold drained his phone battery. Once, he got an alert partway through a hike with his girlfriend and turned back to post about it. (His girlfriend, who drove him home to his computer, wasn’t happy.) After major seismic events, Dickson usually remained online for hours; in 2016, he stayed awake for almost two full days after an earthquake touched off gas fires and destroyed homes in Cook Inlet. 

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By October, when Dickson left his position for a new job in Denver, the Twitter and Facebook pages he managed had gained a combined following of more than 28,000. The Earthquake Center will keep the accounts going, but people had come to depend on Dickson’s unique presence. He always came off calm and assured, like the scientist he never was, but without the sterility of a bot. A tweet from this summer: “Let’s talk about landslide tsunamis, easily one of the most terrifying natural hazards.” From 2015: “Ever wonder what it looks like when a bear takes out a seismic station?” His farewell messages received hundreds of responses. “Your prompt, thoughtful, and informative posts have been a tremendous asset to this jiggly state,” a follower from Homer, Alaska, wrote.

 

TO DICKSON, the social accounts, however popular, meant nothing if his educational bulletins and safety alerts didn’t make it into local news. “It’s not nearly as important as a single article in the newspaper or a spot on TV,” he said. He wanted his work to reach people who knew nothing about the Earthquake Center, let alone his tweets.   

Alexandra Gutierrez joined the ranks of Alaskan journalists in 2010, the same year Dickson started at the Earthquake Center, and they would later develop a close rapport. Like many of the state’s reporters, Gutierrez wasn’t a local. She moved from Washington, DC, for a position at KUCB, a radio station in Unalaska, a 4,500-person fishing community in the Aleutian Islands. It is the westernmost NPR affiliate in the US. “I just thought that it sounded like the coolest old-school journalism out there,” she said. 

She quickly learned that there were some constants to reporting in the Aleutians. “You knew that you’d be reporting on the crab season. You knew you’d be reporting on the pollock season. You knew you’d be reporting the first eagle attacks that happen, and making the same calls to the Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said. “And then, you knew that you were going to be covering earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.”

Earthquakes can trigger tsunamis that threaten the Aleutians, and evacuation routes are commonly posted on streets. Gutierrez’s colleagues told her to get in touch with Dickson, who could confirm data about quakes that occurred and help her understand the broader science. She developed a hyperawareness to seismic events—once, after feeling a brief rattle while sitting at her desk, she called in the smallest human-detected “microearthquake” in Dickson’s memory: a magnitude 1.6. 

“It feels strange to say that a source is your favorite source,” Gutierrez, who left Alaska in 2015 to go to law school, told me, “but Ian was that for me. He definitely had an agenda, but his was making sure you knew what earthquakes were happening and what to do when they happen. I felt like that was a pretty good agenda to promote.”

Big natural disasters attract national coverage, but understanding the long-term impacts requires the sustained attention of local reporting. “With wildfire, flooding, hurricanes, and meteorological hazards, there’s a season for those. There’s a time that you know to prep for them. Whereas earthquakes happen all the time,” said Sara McBride, a social scientist with the United States Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center. The people who report on them are always on call—they need time on the ground and strong community relationships to understand the larger contexts of disaster preparedness. With the climate crisis, this is becoming increasingly true for seasonal disasters as well.

From his position, Dickson noticed challenges specific to Alaska’s local media. He saw that young reporters regularly came to the state from the Lower 48 to cut their teeth, as Gutierrez had, but stayed just a year or two. “It means people don’t have background on earthquake and tsunami stories, and we’re having to teach people how to cover us,” he said, speaking for the Earthquake Center. “It also means that we only see earthquake stories after earthquakes.” Stories about, say, small communities in inundation zones, at risk of serious tsunami damage, are rarely a top priority.

Some reporters haven’t had the choice of continuing to work in Alaska. In 2017, the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), Alaska’s largest newspaper, filed for bankruptcy, transferred ownership, and lost a third of its staff to layoffs. “Ever since then, we’ve been finding our way back to financial sustainability,” said Vicky Ho, the online deputy editor.

A year after the layoffs, on November 30, 2018, the thinned ADN staff was tested. At 8:29am, more than an hour before sunrise, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck just north of Anchorage—the city’s most dramatic seismic event since 1964. Ho, in her bedroom, heard her roommate scream from the shower as objects crashed down from their shelves. 

Dickson was in Denver that day. Since late 2017, he had been working for the Earthquake Center remotely, but his brain still lived permanently up north. When he saw the text, his stomach sank. “I just assumed we would have fatalities,” he recalled. He checked the Earthquake Center’s Slack. “I said, ‘Is that real?’ and I got a yes back really quick. I knew, okay, time to go,” he said. He started tweeting. 

ADN embedded many of Dickson’s tweets in its stories while reporters tracked the consequences of the quake on the ground: school closures, gas leaks, damage to homes and roads. (There were no fatalities.) A rumor metastasized online that a magnitude 8.4 quake would strike later in the day, and Dickson reassured people across platforms that this was false. “That was a case where our priorities aligned, and it made having that good working relationship vital,” said Ho of Dickson’s debunking.

National outlets covered the earthquake the day of—and Donald Trump tweeted about it—but distressing and unpredictable aftershocks continued to rattle locals for months. Ho and her team kept writing: she published an explainer on magnitude informed by Dickson’s conversations online, and other reporters followed up on overwhelmed mental health clinics and the impacts on the housing market. This past September, the ADN staff won an Online Journalism Award for its earthquake reporting. 

The night after the earthquake, Dickson prepared himself for a different kind of tremor. “The mayor of Anchorage had gone on TV and said, ‘Alaskans are resilient people, we’re used to this,’ ” he said. But he worried about the people who weren’t feeling that way. He decided to post about it: 

A short thread for those who won’t be able to sleep tonight. I read an interview with a survivor of the ’64 quake who said that sometimes a room would remind him of where he was when that earthquake hit, and he would have to go outside. This was 50 years later.

I’ve read accounts of major earthquakes where many people began sleeping outside afterwards even though their homes were intact. They were too anxious to sleep indoors. After the 2016 Iniskin earthquake, some continued to be troubled even by small quakes, months later.

We tend to lean on the image of the resilient Alaskan, but some will be dealing with fear and anxiety from this earthquake for a while. If this describes you, know that a lot of people are in the same boat. It’s a normal, common reaction to a very sudden, very frightening event.

“Thank you,” one user tweeted back. “I was born here, but this one today knocked me for a loop. Just terrifying. Good to know I’m not alone.”

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This article has been updated.

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Elena Saavedra Buckley is a writer and a contributing editor at High Country News. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

TOP IMAGE: Damage near Wasilla, Alaska, after an earthquake on November 30, 2018. Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP