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Volume 32, Issue 4

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Friday, 31 May 2019 15:22

After an Earthquake in America’s Only Arctic State, What Now Lurks Underfoot?

Written by  ART NASH

Certain words can create anxiety depending on an individual’s or generation’s life experiences. One of those words—especially for baby boomers who grew up during the Cold War—is “radiation.” Many people innately relate it to their elementary school years of under-the-school-desk exercises, public yellow rectangle signs with three inverted black triangles noting “fallout shelter” or geography lessons framed by events at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three-Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Most recently, the eighth anniversary of the earthquake induced nuclear meltdown at Fukashima, Japan has again reminded people of the sometimes horrific effects of radiation.

Earthquakes are not uncommon in Alaska, nor the possibilities of resulting Tsunamis. Located on the ring of fire, Alaska has more earthquakes than any other region of the U.S. (70 percent of the largest U.S. quakes having occurred here). Unlike Japan, Alaska lacks nuclear power plants – yet naturally occurring radiation induced by seismic related is a concern.

Nash Fig1

Figure 1: Continued earthquake activity from Jan. 16-30, a month and a half after the second largest earthquake in Anchorage hit, only next to the 1964 Good Friday quake (the world’s second largest quake recorded). Alaska Earthquake Center, https://earthquake.alaska.edu/earthquakes

When the M7.0 earthquake rattled Anchorage on Nov. 30, 2018, at 8:30 a.m., power immediately went out for much of the city. This impeded traffic, left gas stations helpless in distributing fuel and in at least one case sent law enforcement dangerously close to a smoking transformer in the downtown sector. Additionally a downtown sewer main was broken, repeated tsunami warnings were heard on the AM radio and concern was voiced early on about the integrity of the port and docks of Anchorage. This port handles over three-quarters of the state’s consumed food, which arrives on three barges each week. The international airport was down throughout the day of the earthquake and when flights resumed many gate computers where not up nor were all the runway lights on. Two conferences at taller downtown hotels had just concluded which left many people from remote tribal villages stuck with elevators that didn’t operate and stranded from getting flights back to their home communities.

Immediately social media and radio revealed that the initial physical shock clearly redistributed subsurface material effecting public water works, as well as private wells. Brackish sediment began clouding faucet water and black water filled flushed toilets. The event tore apart the tar on major highways out of the state’s population center of Anchorage (pop. 294,000 with around 117,000 residential dwellings at a mean value of $305,000). It made cement bridges impassible and created breaches and fissures in home foundations that had not previously been present. The effected area included the state’s largest city borough of Anchorage and the bedroom communities of Eagle River as well as Big Lake, Wasilla, and Palmer in the Matsu Borough (pop. 106,000 in 41,000 residential dwellings at a mean value of $236,000).


The Glen Highway, the only artery between the Matsu Borough workforce and Anchorage city center, was repaired in several days which is a very short amount of time by winter construction standards. Very soon after the event municipal inspectors started going through residential areas to mark homes that were not to be entered with a red door tag, noted those which could be entered but not slept in with yellow door tags and gave the go ahead with green tags for citizens waiting to return to residences. Yet this initial inspection did not speak to the amount of damage to home foundations but merely the structural integrity of the home per livability. In almost all cases, standard insurance policies required by mortgage houses issued from local agents did not cover foundation or roof damage from seismic activity. In the rare case that coverage was added, $60K deductibles were not unusual.

With the large portion of newcomers to the state since the notable 1964 Good Friday M9.2 earthquake, this event with thousands of aftershocks in the following several months was a reverberating experience for many that brought not only financial burdens but also psychological effects. No fatalities were reported, and much of the immediate triage to structures that had to be dealt with was water damage from twisted pipe joints which leaked and sprinkler systems that went off. Yet beyond water damage, one unseen radiological long-term danger still lingers. Even for those homeowners who did not have large fissures in cement floors or between the mortared joints of cinderblock walls, the carcinogenic off-gassing of radon gas into homes from subsurface uranium remains a threat.

An hour after the earthquake, several University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) faculty were wading through downtown Anchorage in the congestion of people who were trying to navigate to their homes to check heaters, pipes and their homes in general. Texts were relayed via this extension service’s statewide energy specialist (who also operates extension’s housing outreach) and his program area manager up to university headquarters 350 miles away to have the social media unit immediately post particular peer-reviewed digital publications on radon, healthy home, and natural disasters/emergencies according to concerns from people and the local AM station.


Communication was made with the state’s outreach geologist at Alaska Department of Natural Resources and plans were made to work existing collaborations with the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Family and Agriculture and the Housing Urban Development offices in Washington D.C. on housing issues that were unfolding. The immediate concern was moisture and potential mold problems from pressurized pipes leaking and safe indoor air quality regarding heating appliances and possible carbon monoxide contamination among the subfreezing outdoor temperatures. The state’s D.C. congressional delegation asked that the UAF Cooperative Extension get immediate relief information out to state constituents.

During the first couple of days connections with existing networks with the State of Alaska Departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation, and Health Environmental Protection Agency provided radon testing kits to homeowners after an alert went out following national protocol from the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians. This protocol calls for retesting concentrations of radon, even if the typical five-year period in between tests has not yet come about. Getting the 1-800-478-8324 Alaska Radon Hotline number and the offer to supply radon test kits through the Cooperative Extension district offices/agents showed that the public were open to hearing about healthy home concerns that may have been exacerbated by new fissures in their foundation or redistribution of sub-soils.


An initial recommendation to test for radon was put out by the extension energy specialist (also being the Alaska indoor radon grant principal investigator). A 30-second press release went out to various media outlets as well as the statewide university system was sent out on the cusp of the week-anniversary since the quake. This was also on the cusp of substantial changes in state employee positions from recent gubernatorial elections, and the radon testing recommendation was disquieting to some. The verbiage used was taken directly from the 2014 national construction standards of which several members of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians had been involved creating. A workshop schedule was immediately developed to be delivered in Anchorage with an emphasis on subsurface healthy homes hazards from both an air quality (radon) and water quality (arsenic).

The Associated Press picked up on the recommendation and an article about it was published in dozens of news outlets worldwide. Calls followed from residents and the regional EPA office was consulted on providing home test kits. Hundreds of questions on testing and home repair on those breeches which could be seen amidst carpeting, tile flooring, drywall, paneling, etc, were answered. Testing for radon was suggested as a “should,” per national protocol. This energy specialist spoke with a state senator who included a safety message through her newsletter to constituents The continual messaging was that not only were there possible fissures, which could not clearly be seen, but there also may have been soil voids caused by the earthquake well below the surface of the ground floor that could act as avenues for release of the gas. The only way to know if there is a problem is to test.


So, to put things in perspective, the sun gives off radiation, which can cause skin cancer after prolonged periods of solar exposure. Radioactive radon gas in homes originates from naturally occurring uranium in rocks and soils. These are minor radiation sources. Similar to the effects of solar radiation, exposure to radon gas can cause lung cancer after you breathe it in long-term. In both cases, the likelihood of getting cancer is highly influenced by length of exposure time to these very-lowdose radiation sources. Many of Alaska’s rocks and soils contain enough uranium to produce dangerous levels of radon when concentrated in a home’s air. Because radon gas travels through newly formed cracks in soil and rock the EPA-endorsed testing protocol from the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians recommends homeowners test for radon every five years, after significant seismic events like Anchorage’s recent earthquake, and after other events and activities that may change the air flow or structure of your home, such as home remodel, sinkholes, floods, etc.

That is the physics of the danger – low dosage of alpha radiation over long periods of time, which is undetectable in buildings without actual sample testing. In the case of this earthquake (the second largest in Alaska), the message has gone out and hundreds of people who are testing directly due to the state indoor radon grant manager’s recommendation out of extension. Word has also gone out to let people know that due to naturally occurring arsenic, and possible leech field breaches, it is a good idea for residents to test their water if they are on private wells due to subsurface disturbances in the water tables and aquifer. The healthy homes message will continue to be circulated. With reoccurring aftershocks after the major event, there are plenty of reminders there are continual changes underfoot that need to be watched after a big shaker!

Nash ArtAssociate Professor Art Nash conducts the statewide outreach on practical energy and housing topics, while connecting with faculty and agencies to get information for residents and relay what those audiences are interested in from research and campus knowledge. He currently manages educational activities with the State Indoor Radon grant (EPA), the National Extension Healthy Homes Partnership grant (USDA) and has in the past managed the education with Special Needs (Emergency Preparedness) grant (USDA).  Nash is currently working on completing an Alaskan residential guide to emergency disaster preparedness, so the clean-up and habitation of a home can be as quick as possible after disasters.


AARST Construction on National Standards, [2014] Protocol for Conducting Measurements of Radon and Radon Decay Products in Homes. Available at: https://www.radonstandards.us

Eighmy, M. , (2012) The Extension Service and Rural/Frontier Disaster Planning, Response, and Recovery Journal of Extension [On-line], 50(4) Article Number 4FEA10. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2012august/a10.php

University of Alaska, Fairbanks Alaska Earthquake Center, Map of Earthquakes January 16-30, 2019. Available at https://earthquake.alaska.edu/earthquake