Summer quake spurs researchers to Amchitka

Amchitka Island (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

Amchitka Island (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

A team of scientists is descending on a former nuclear test site in the Aleutians today to search for damage from a massive earthquake.

Mark Kautsky oversees Amchitka for the Office of Legacy Management — part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Kautsky says they weren’t supposed to visit the island for another two years. But then, a 7.9 quake struck this June, “like 25 miles north of the island.”

“It’s actually also 70 miles below the surface,” Kautsky says. “So we don’t expect that there was any deformation in the area under the island.”

And that means there probably wasn’t a release of radioactive material. Since the last detonation at Amchitka in the early 1970s, scientists haven’t picked up any leaks in the marine environment.

But this earthquake might have shifted things above ground. The island holds seven cells full of drilling mud from the nuclear tests — all contaminated with diesel fuel. They’re covered with soil, and Kautsky says they need to stay that way.

“So we’ll do a walkaround on the covers and if there’s any indication that the slopes have failed,” Kautsky says. “That’s evidenced by things like slumping.”

While those tests are underway, researchers from the Alaska Volcano Observatory and the University of Alaska Fairbanks will be installing new seismic monitoring equipment.

The expedition is expected to wrap up around August 27. The DOE won’t be inspecting the island again until 2016.