Arctic Science
Journeys
Radio Script
1999

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NASA Teams with Alaska Students to Study Earthquakes
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INTRO: Three of the ten biggest earthquakes recorded during the last century occurred in Alaska, and every day smaller temblors give notice to the changing landscape beneath our feet. Predicting earthquakes has always been part science, part hunch. But now high school students are pitching in to help predict the next Big One. Arctic Science Journeys reporter Doug Schneider has more.

STORY: Almost any scientist will tell you that doing research in Alaska is an expensive proposition. To get anywhere, you have to fly--and hauling large, heavy instruments all over the state can be pricey. For Jeanne Sauber, a geophysicist at NASA who studies earthquakes in Alaska, the problem was solved by recruiting local high school teachers and their students.

SAUBER: "Rather than have busy researchers running around taking measurements all over, why not take high school science teachers who are trained in science to work with their students? The students are trained to take actual measurements on the ground and therefore everybody is involved in the research."

Jeanne Sauber recruited teachers and students from five Alaska communities in areas prone to earthquakes. One such place is Kodiak Island. The city was nearly wiped out by a tsunami generated by the Good Friday quake in 1964. Measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale, the quake was the largest ever recorded in the United States. Kodiak science teacher Eric Linscheid says the opportunity for his students to work with NASA scientists on a project important to the community was too good to pass up.

LINSCHEID: "I like giving kids opportunities. It's neat to do this and neat to be at the forefront of research that has benefits to the community."

Before they could help out, Linscheid's students learned all about how earthquakes occur. They learned that the earth's crust is composed of several very large pieces--each called a tectonic plate. Their island--located about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage--sits on one such plate called the North American Plate. Offshore is another chunk called the North Pacific Plate. Where the two plates meet, tremendous strain builds up as they slowly push against each other. An earthquake is triggered when something finally gives way and the strain is released.

Jeanne Sauber says most of the quakes that occur each day around the world are barely perceptible--but at times they can be extremely violent.

SAUBER: "When that plate breaks, when it suddenly lurches forward, that's when you have an earthquake like the 1964 quake."

Armed with knowledge of plate tectonics, students were next trained to use sophisticated---and very expensive--Global Positioning Systems. The devices receive data from orbiting satellites that tell researchers the exact location of seven sites on the island. Students track the movement of the tectonic plate by constantly measuring the exact location of their island. From these measurements, scientists, can judge how much strain might be building up between the two pieces of the earth's crust.

On Kodiak Island, high school teacher Eric Linscheid says his students have measured significant movement of the island.

LINSCHEID: "It's moving approximately 14 to 11 millimeters a year. It's moving northward.

That doesn't mean an earthquake is likely. It's just one piece of a complex puzzle scientists must know about to improve their understanding of how earthquakes occur.

Students at Alaska high schools in Kenny Lake, Cordova, Valdez and Glenallen are also participating in the study. Jeanne Sauber says the data students have collected thus far shows that strain is building up in the earth's crust over a larger than expected area of the state.

SAUBER: "We realized strain was accumulating, but we didn't realize how wide the zone of strain that was accumulating. We had just a couple of points before and this kind of filled in the picture of just how much the area is distorting. We didn't see one little area where lots of strain was accumulating. We saw it over a broad area."

Jeanne Sauber says the information provided by students has been invaluable to her and other earthquake scientists. But Eric Linscheid says the rewards go both ways. He says several students have gone on to pursue science fields in college following their NASA experience.

OUTRO: From the Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this is Doug Schneider with Arctic Science Journeys.


Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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