USGS scientists studying Alaskan island subduction zone

U.S. Geological Survey scientists have been studying the coastal geology of Simeonof Island, the southeastern-most island in the Shumagin archipelago of the Aleutian Islands.

The latest research suggests the region has not experienced a great megathrust earthquake in at least the past 3,400 years. Although this research focuses on better understanding a very remote part of the world, it has important implications for far reaching areas of heavily populated parts of the globe, USGS officials said. This newly-published finding will improve seismic and tsunami hazard assessments in the United States and at coastlines around the Pacific Ocean and will help inform disaster management officials to potentially save lives and economies.

A 1946 earthquake in another part of the Aleutian Islands triggered a major tsunami that reached Hawaii Island, killing 159 people and flattening much of the development on the Hilo Bay waterfront.

The Shumagin seismic gap is an area of great interest for earthquake studies. Unlike most of the Aleutian megathrust fault that failed in great (magnitude 8 or greater) earthquakes in the 20th century, the Shumagin Islands region has not experienced an earthquake of that magnitude in the past century. This has led to speculation that the Shumagin Islands represent a “gap” that will be filled by a large rupture at some time, yet no evidence suggests that this has happened previously.

A team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and partner institutions found no evidence for prehistoric great earthquakes on Simeonof Island in the Shumagin seismic gap that overlies part of the Aleutian megathrust subduction zone known to be creeping — when the two sides of the fault are moving slowly and smoothly past each other instead of sticking, and slipping suddenly in an earthquake. The lack of geologic evidence for great earthquakes and tsunamis in the area implies that a large amount of tectonic plate motion along the Shumagin seismic gap has been accommodated by a seismic slip (slow creeping) over the past 3,400 years, and that large (but not great) earthquakes — like the historical magnitude 7 to 7.5 shocks of the 20th century — may be sufficient to release the elastic strain stored in the Shumagin gap.

“Even though GPS stations show that the Shumagin gap is mostly creeping, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the megathrust may have stored enough strain over thousands of years to produce a great earthquake, so we went in search of evidence to see if it had happened before,” said Rob Witter, lead author of the study and a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center. “We wondered whether coastal geology in the Shumagin Islands contained evidence for past great earthquakes, despite present signs of creeping subduction. If megathrust earthquakes have ruptured the Shumagin gap in the past, it would imply higher tsunami hazards to Southern California and Hawaii,” said Witter.