Melting Glaciers Contribute to Alaska Earthquakes, Cause Land to Rise at 1.5 Inches per Year

Yakutat Glacier

Glaciers such as the Yakutat in Southeast Alaska, shown here, have been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age, influencing earthquakes in the region. Credit: Photo by Sam Herreid

In 1958, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake triggered a rockslide into Southeast Alaska’s Lituya Bay, creating a tsunami that ran 1,700 feet up a mountainside before racing out to sea.

Researchers now think the region’s widespread loss of glacier ice helped set the stage for the quake.

In a recently published research article, scientists with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute found that ice loss near Glacier Bay National Park has influenced the timing and location of earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.0 or greater in the area during the past century.

Scientists have known for decades that melting glaciers have caused earthquakes in otherwise tectonically stable regions, such as Canada’s interior and Scandinavia. In Alaska, this pattern has been harder to detect, as earthquakes are common in the southern part of the state.

Alaska has some of the world’s largest glaciers, which can be thousands of feet thick and cover hundreds of square miles. The ice’s weight causes the land beneath it to sink, and, when a glacier melts, the ground springs back like a sponge.

Lituya Bay 1958

An earthquake-triggered tsunami stripped vegetation from the hills and mountains above Lituya Bay in 1958. The treeless areas are visible as lighter ground surrounding the bay in this photograph taken shortly after the event. Credit: Photo by Donald Miller, U.S. Geological Survey

“There are two components to the uplift,” said Chris Rollins, the study’s lead author who conducted the research while at the Geophysical Institute. “There’s what’s called the ‘elastic effect,’ which is when the earth instantly springs back up after an ice mass is removed. Then there’s the prolonged effect from the mantle flowing back upwards under the vacated space.”

In the study, researchers link the expanding movement of the mantle with large earthquakes across Southeast Alaska, where glaciers have been melting for over 200 years. More than 1,200 cubic miles of ice have been lost.

Southern Alaska sits at the boundary between the continental North American plate and the Pacific Plate. They grind past each other at about two inches per year — roughly twice the rate of the San Andreas fault in California — resulting in frequent earthquakes.

The disappearance of glaciers, however, has also caused Southeast Alaska’s land to rise at about 1.5 inches per year.

Rollins ran models of earth movement and ice loss since 1770, finding a subtle but unmistakable correlation between earthquakes and earth rebound.

When they combined their maps of ice loss and shear stress with seismic records back to 1920, they found that most large quakes were correlated with the stress from long-term earth rebound.

Unexpectedly, the greatest amount of stress from ice loss occurred near the exact epicenter of the 1958 quake that caused the Lituya Bay tsunami.

While the melting of glaciers is not the direct cause of earthquakes, it likely modulates both the timing and severity of seismic events.

When the earth rebounds following a glacier’s retreat, it does so much like bread rising in an oven, spreading in all directions. This effectively unclamps strike-slip faults, such as the Fairweather in Southeast Alaska, and makes it easier for the two sides to slip past one another.

In the case of the 1958 quake, the postglacial rebound torqued the crust around the fault in a way that increased stress near the epicenter as well. Both this and the unclamping effect brought the fault closer to failure.

“The movement of plates is the main driver of seismicity, uplift and deformation in the area,” said Rollins. “But postglacial rebound adds to it, sort of like the de-icing on the cake. It makes it more likely for faults that are in the red zone to hit their stress limit and slip in an earthquake.”

Reference: “Stress Promotion of the 1958 Mw∼7.8 Fairweather Fault Earthquake and Others in Southeast Alaska by Glacial Isostatic Adjustment and Inter‐earthquake Stress Transfer” by Chris Rollins, Jeffrey T. Freymueller and Jeanne M. Sauber, 11 December 2020, JGR Solid Earth.
DOI: 10.1029/2020JB020411

3 Comments on "Melting Glaciers Contribute to Alaska Earthquakes, Cause Land to Rise at 1.5 Inches per Year"

  1. …first time looking at your site !
    I am amazed!

  2. It is interesting to read, and much appreciated, that the melting ice is not being blamed on man made warming. The author stated that the melting has been going on for over two hundred years, which puts it out of the AGW area. I’ve been to the Athebasca glacier in jasper nation park, where the glaciologists have posted signage showing when the ridges left during glacial retreat were deposited. These ridges were put down all the way back to the 1820s, and probably earlier. This all verifies what’s been known for a long time but not acknowledged; glaciers have been melting since the end of the last ice age. So when you here someone say that the melting is a result of man made global warming, realize that at least some of it has nothing to do with us!

  3. Jon,Ur an Idiot to think that the progress of Man throughout the World has nothing to do with Glacier melting. Yes they have been melting since last Ice Age,But no where close to the rate they have been since the 60’s. Take a look at Denali an the transfermation of it’s landscape. If U wonna tell yourself that it’s not from Man’s progress that it’s natural cause U miss-read an article about glacier melting “that U didn’t understand an interperted to your Stupid way of thinking”. It’s People like U that are the cause of it. Not greenhouse gases nor global warming and No it’s not from that it’s natural cause an author put it in an article.

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