State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Installing Seismic Gear On The Beautiful (But Challenging) Alaska Peninsula

Katie and Guy install station in Port Heiden

Every field location comes with logistical hurdles, and the Alaska Peninsula is no exception. Weather, wildlife and modes of transport pose the greatest challenges. We are hardly the first scientists to encounter these: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has a long, rich history of collecting seismic data in this region (e.g., Shumagin Seismic Network, which ran for >20 years), and many groups continue to collect geophysical data here today.

The Alaska Peninsula is too rugged and wild for a network of roads, so planes, helicopters or boats are the only transportation options.  We opted for planes, which immediately imposed a restriction on the locations of our seismic stations: they must be near airstrips. Happily, the Peninsula is sprinkled with small communities and lodges with airstrips, most of which lie close to the Pacific or Bering coasts rather than in the remote interior. Back in the office before our deployment, we chose the most ideally located airstrips for our stations and connected the dots between them with the most efficient possible flight plans.  But, our plans quickly changed once we were in the field. The weather dictates when and where you can fly each day, and it varies dramatically.  We have been lucky enough to have several clear days (even saw some blue skies and sunshine!), but other days we have been grounded by weather and wiled away the time indoors at the inn in Nelson Lagoon.

Scenic location for a seismic station

Once we arrive in each location, we need a quiet, safe place to install our equipment and a ride from the airstrip. On both counts, local communities have been unwaveringly helpful and friendly. The two school districts here kindly granted us permission to install our seismic stations at any of their schools, and we also obtained permission to place equipment at various lodges and village offices.  Residents volunteered to take our gear and us from the airstrip to our sites. In one town, our pilot made a general plea over the radio: “Is anyone listening on Channel 3? I’m here at the airstrip with scientists who need a ride to the school”. Someone answered immediately and picked us up 5 minutes later.

Fresh bear paw print near one station

Many of our sites are in spectacular places near remote lodges or in towns nestled between mountains and the ocean.  All of them are home to impressive wild life that poses a risk to our equipment, particularly bears.  We can protect the equipment against curious small animals but fully bear-proofing a station for a short  (two-month-long) deployment is not feasible. Instead, we hope that placing our stations in villages (rather than in the wild) will provide some protection, but we will also need good luck. Fingers crossed…

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