These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Alaska! Are You Prepared?

Natural disasters that occur in Alaska

Known for the Northern lights, the freezing weather, dog sledding, and the powerful story of Chris McCandless, Alaska is undoubtedly one of the most astounding places in the United States. 

Its vast wilderness, landscapes, and untouched beauty make it a top destination for vacationers and residents alike. 

Life in the Last Frontier does not come without its set of challenges, however. Aside from it being the largest state in the nation, it’s also one of the most remote. The population size is low and the cost of living is high.

The climate is harsh and the winters are long. Those who call it home are blessed with impeccable sights and the comforting sounds of nature in its purest form. Without a doubt, the inhabitants are some of the most resilient people around.

Without minimizing the impacts of natural disasters, I think it’s fair to say that they largely contribute to shaping the scenery and beauty that can be found throughout the state. 

What natural disasters does Alaska have?

Alaska’s most common natural disasters include severe winter storms, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, power outages, and volcanoes.

Between 1953 and 2019, Alaska declared 62 major disasters, of which severe storms and wildfires happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

1. Severe Winter Storms

As you would expect, Alaska experiences severe weather ranging from winter blizzards to occasional summer thunderstorms.

Its geographic location makes it especially prone to cold temperatures almost year-round while the summertime sees warmer temperatures (at least during the daytime).

Under the right climate conditions, you can expect blizzards in the winter and lightning and thunderstorms in the summer. 

Identifying the approximate number of storms on an annual scale is not possible considering that radar coverage is limited. Being such a scarcely populated state, detection systems are mostly found near the larger cities, including Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Bethel.

Storms that occur outside of city limits may only be identified by the locals of the area or go unnoticed altogether. 

That being said, the weather records show us some cool statistics. 

  • The coldest it has ever been in Alaska was -79.8°F (-62°C) at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971.

  • The warmest, you might be wondering, was 100 °F at Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915.

  • The lowest temperatures during the summer can be found at Utqiagvik, which averages 36.4° F (2.4° C) between June and August. As for the lowest annual temperature, Utqiagvik also sets the record with an average of 9.3° F (-12.6° C)!

  • The highest summer temperatures can be found in Fairbanks which oftentimes reaches well into the 80s and occasionally into the 90s.

  • Thunderstorms can be expected during the summertime when temperatures are warm and are more common in the interior part of the state north of the Alaska Range. During hot summers, you can experience them south of the Alaska Range as well.

  • The snowiest place in Alaska is Thompson Pass. It receives over 500 inches of snow each year. The snowiest sea-level town in the world is Valdez, AK. It receives an average of 320 inches of snow each season!

    The worst blizzard in Alaskan history is believed to have taken place in the Thompson Pass as well. In 1963, mile 47 of the Richardson Highway received 6 1/2 feet of snow.

  • The most snow Fairbanks received in a single storm was 35 inches. This happened on February 11th and 12th, 1966.

Being prepared for the winter months and extreme cold weather is essential for your survival in Alaska. You should definitely know the signs of hypothermia and learn how to reverse the symptoms as soon as possible in the event that you’re not able to find help right away.

If you’re living or planning to move to Alaska, it may benefit you to learn about preparing for the winter from the locals who have first-hand experience with the harsh climate. In any case, this guide has some essential tips.

2. Wildfires 

The main cause of wildfires nationwide is linked to human activity. Alaska, on the other hand, not only leads the country with the most forest fires and the largest acreage burned but is also one of the few places where lightning strikes are the leading cause of blazes. 

The worst fire season on record for Alaska occurred in 2004. That year the state experienced 701 fires which burned 6,590,140 acres.

Even though wildfires are common in Alaska, as well as a natural part of the ecosystem, researchers are noticing that large fires are occurring more often than in years past.

One of the main challenges the state faces is reaching lightning-caused fires that start in remote areas. A fire that starts in a remote area will eventually grow in size and heat intensity and may threaten both the air quality and the structures of nearby urban areas. 

There are some precautions you can take to reduce your risk of property damage, but unfortunately, there’s never a guarantee that your home will survive. Some preventative methods include creating defensible space between your home and any flammable or fire-inducing object like trees, timber, dead branches, and firewood.

If your home is under evacuation orders, your life needs to take priority over your property. Be ready to get out as soon as possible and take your emergency kits and other personal belongings.

For more wildfire preparedness tips, check out this guide! Be sure to print your wildfire safety checklist.

3. Floods

Alaskan floods are typically a result of coastal storm surges, rapid snow and ice melt, ice jams in rivers, and events of heavy rain. According to the Department of Natural Resource’s Geological and Geophysical Survey, nearly nine out of ten Alaska Native villages experience floods and/or coastal erosion due to floods. 

One of the worst floods in Alaska’s recent history occurred in the spring of 2009. An ice dam caused an ice jam on the Yukon River. The river overflowed and flooded the communities of Eagle and Eagle Village. The damage was devastating, to say the least, and several families were left homeless. 

Flood events can occur within a short amount of time if the conditions are favorable for such a thing to happen.

In order to become prepared, you should look into your area’s flood zone. Determine what your risk level is and plan accordingly. Consider talking to an insurance agent from the National Flood Insurance Program to see what your options are. 

Even if your risk is low, you must be prepared to evacuate your home at a moment’s notice since flash floods can develop quickly and become a threat without warning.

In the event of a flood warning, get to higher ground immediately. Do not attempt to cross flood waters.

If you don’t have a flood preparedness plan yet, I encourage you to take a look at our guide where you will find many helpful resources.

4. Earthquakes

Large earthquakes are no strangers to Alaska, in fact, it’s the most seismically active state in the nation. 

The US Geological Survey monitors earthquake activity in the state. While the largest amplitude on the recording is measured using the Richter scale, the USGS currently reports magnitudes using the Moment Magnitude scale.  

According to the USGS and the Department of Natural Resources, the Frontier State experiences about six magnitude 6 to 7 earthquakes every year, one magnitude 7 to 8 quakes every two years, and one magnitude 8 or greater earthquake every 13 years. The majority of these occur offshore or along the coast. 

The state's deadliest natural disaster was the Good Friday Earthquake, also known as the Great Alaska Earthquake. It occurred on March 27, 1964. A 9.2 magnitude earthquake rattled the Prince William Sound region of Alaska. This was the second strongest earthquake ever recorded in the world! Let that sink in for a minute...

The main shock and aftershocks occurred on the boundary line between two tectonic plates: the Pacific plate and North American plate. This earthquake vibrated across the entire world and affected states as far as Florida. Thousands of aftershocks occurred for more than a year following the main quake.

The extensive damage this event caused was the result of the original earthquake as well as submarine landslides which caused tsunami damage along the coastal areas. There were 131 recoded fatalities from this strong earthquake.

One of the largest earthquakes in recent history occurred on November 30, 2018. A magnitude 7.1 quake shook southcentral Alaska near Anchorage and could be felt in Fairbanks. While the damage to infrastructure and buildings was extensive, no fatalities were reported. 

The strongest earthquake recorded in nearly 40 years was the 2002 Denali quake. It was a 7.9 magnitude quake that occurred on November 3. It occurred in southeast Alaska along the Denali Fault and Totschunda Fault. This was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the interior of the state.

Preparing for earthquake hazards begins with learning and practicing the safety measures to prevent becoming injured during a strong shaker.

If a major earthquake shakes your area, you need to get low to the ground and protect yourself from flying debris and unstable objects.

If you or a loved one has mobility issues, you should practice earthquake simulations at home to train yourself on how to respond effectively.

Have a bug-out kit ready in case evacuation is required. Learn more earthquake safety tips here! 

The Alaska Earthquake Center also offers helpful information on reducing the impacts of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in the state.

5. Avalanches and Landslides

Alaska is known for having avalanches due to a combination of contributing factors, including frequent winter storms, slope steepness, slope orientation, heavy precipitation, strong gusty winds, and wind direction.

According to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, the risk is greater just after a new storm has dropped a fresh load of snow, or when high winds have overloaded the slopes. 

Alaska is also highly vulnerable to landslides, and just like avalanches, they occur mostly along steep slopes and in mountainous regions. 

Numerous problems can present themselves when an avalanche or landslide occurs, including loss of life, loss of property, loss of electricity, structural damage, becoming stranded for days or weeks until the roads are cleared or repairs are made, and lack of resources (such as groceries, gasoline for generators, and other commodities that are regularly transported into the city). 

The USGS is currently monitoring a steep slope in the Barry Arm fjord. It's located 30 miles northeast of Whittier. If it falls into the water, it could generate a devastating tsunami in Whittier and the northern Prince William Sound.

The importance of becoming prepared for a future avalanche or landslide should not be underestimated, and knowing your risk should be your first step.

If you live in a high-risk area, contact your local government office for suggestions on how to safeguard your property and home.

If your risk is low, you shouldn’t ignore the possibility altogether but should take proactive measures to strengthen any vulnerable areas, such as a hilly property. For more information check out these tips and remember to print the checklist for future reference.

6. Tsunami

Due to its high seismic activity, Alaska experiences tsunami warnings yearly. A warning is sure to bring attention to the coastal communities as the need to put preparedness plans into action is crucial, but luckily, many of the warnings are canceled after the threat to the region diminishes. 

One of the most significant tsunamis to hit Alaska occurred in the Prince William Sound region on March 27, 1964. It came after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake rocked the area for a record 4.5 minutes! The tsunami waves reached 220 feet in height and it resulted in the death of 106 people. 

The largest ‘mega-tsunami' in Alaska occurred on July 9, 1958. This tsunami was caused by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that triggered a massive rockslide in the Gilbert Inlet of Lituya Bay. Damage from the tidal waves that the tsunami produced was seen as high as 1,720 feet! Five people passed away during this incident.

Major tsunamis don’t occur often but warnings are triggered yearly. If you go to an area with a high risk of tsunamis, make it a habit to observe your surroundings and pinpoint a place where you can flee to higher ground if necessary. 

In order to prepare for a tsunami, you should learn the warning signs, such as strong earthquakes, rapidly receding water along the shoreline, and abnormally large waves.

In the event of a tsunami warning, get to higher ground immediately!

Read our complete tsunami preparedness guide here!

7. Power Outages

Since gasoline is so expensive in Alaska, natural gas produces the majority of the state's electricity. Hydropower and other forms of renewable energy are commonly used too, especially in the rural off-grid communities.

Power outages are as likely to happen in the Frontier State as they are just about anywhere else. They can have devastating effects during the winter months when the temperatures drop and when resources are depleted.

If you’re living in Alaska or are planning to live there during the winter, I recommend you familiarize yourself with the region and get to know the locals who can guide you in the best way with respect to preparing for power outages.

Learning to use alternative methods of electricity will be crucial and possibly life-saving. You can learn some additional power outage tips on our guide here!

8. Volcanoes

An active volcano is defined by any volcano that has experienced some type of activity in the past 10,000 years.

The coast along Southern Alaska is lined by a section of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped region comprised of 452 volcanoes surrounding the Pacific Ocean. In Alaska specifically, you can find 130 volcanoes, 40 of which are said to have had at least one eruption since 1760. 

One of the most powerful eruptions was the June 1912 eruption of Novarupta. This volcano was formed during its eruption. It released 30 times the volume of magma that was released during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens! 

The Redoubt Volcano was one of the last volcanic eruptions in Alaska. It began its eruptive activity in March 2009 and lasted through July 2009. The eruption produced large lahars, floods, and mushroom-shaped plumes of ash that later covered the surrounding landscape.

Volcanoes are extremely powerful and can erupt in as little as minutes and without much warning.

The USGS not only monitors earthquake activity but also volcanic activity since they may correlate with each other. If a volcano alert is sent out by the local weather radio, I highly suggest that you take it seriously and refer to their instructions.

Sometimes we can underestimate the potential of these beasts but they’re not to be messed with.

Your safety is the most important thing, so do what you feel is best for you and your loved ones: evacuate or shelter in place. Then wait until the volcano has stopped erupting and wear protective clothing and masks prior to leaving your house.

In this guide, you will find a lot more valuable information and safety tips on volcanoes.

Natural disaster resources for Alaska

We highly recommend you check out the following emergency preparedness resources.

  • One of the easiest ways to receive weather alerts, warnings, and related notifications is on your phone through the National Weather Service app.

    Download the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA Weather Radio and allow notifications to get sent to you any time of the day. Many disasters occur during the night and you’ll be better off being alerted if you’re sleeping.

    Another place to get updates is via your local radio and TV news, as well as their social media pages.

  • Knowing what disasters your city specifically is prone to help immensely in determining how to best prepare. Be sure to check out our disaster guides and print out the free checklists provided to prepare accordingly for any future emergency.

    In our guides you will learn to develop long-term strategies for your hazard mitigation plan, which items to put in your emergency supply kit, and how to overcome varying disaster emergencies. 

  • The federal government provides free courses and community engagement groups throughout the United States. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) teaches you how to become prepared for local emergencies and how to help others during disasters.

    The classes are free to the public and taught by local authorities. Check out your local CERT here!

  • If you’re a member of an organization or own a business that offers unique and helpful resources, I encourage you to look into Alaska’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

    This nonprofit organization is responsible for determining the immediate needs of local communities post-disaster. They work with state agencies, local officials, local businesses, and the local emergency planning committee.

    Once the needs are assessed, they will gather the resources to meet those needs quickly and effectively. By signing up, you might be called to assist and help others during their recovery process.

    Another disaster emergency organization worth mentioning is the American Red Cross. They provide shelter, food, and supplies to evacuees.

  • Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services (specifically the Division of Public Health) is another place you can look into for guides on how to prepare for and recover from an emergency.

    Another resource for the state is the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.  

I hope you enjoyed reading about the natural hazards that affect the state of Alaska.

We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plans according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!

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