All posts by Jessica Larsen

I am a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and a volcanologist with over 20 years experience conducting research on active volcanoes in the state of Alaska and around the world. I am interested in translating my research to helping us better monitor and forecast potentially dangerous volcanic eruptions.

My own preparedness (and issues!)

Hi all

This is a little late but I feel like I should at least post about my own family’s preparedness and issues. The holes I see in my family are: no great communication plan, inadequate water storage, fluctuating levels of stored food, we don’t always have spare gas for the generator, and incomplete first aid supplies.

The ways in which we are well-prepared include: generator and plug in on the circuit breaker, with a switch to cut off the generator to the line power, great defensible space (house is surrounded by a lawn), ample camping gear and supplies for cold weather, woodstove for back up heat and a healthy wood pile, plenty of light sources (headlamps, LED battery lights).

We are currently making some improvements mostly related to improving our defensible space. Our power line runs behind our house and we have a bunch of older aspen and poplar trees that routinely break and fall on the power line. This is a fire hazard and also can knock out power to a lot of houses in our neighborhood! We just marked a whole new bunch of trees for removal – just waiting for GVEA now to do their part! They are too dangerous for us to remove ourselves, but at least we are in the queue now. Still more improvements to go, first of all – communication plan is needed!

EOTW#10 – the 1967 Fairbanks, Alaska flood

I guess it’s time to do a EOTW closer to home (although I know some of you are all over the country!). The 1967 flood happened on the Chena River in Fairbanks during Augustin 1967. During July 1967, the Fairbanks area received almost twice the normal amount of rain as 3.32 inches fell. During August, the rain did not let up and another 3.42 inches fell within a 24 hour period between August 11 and 13. In total August 1967 experienced 6.2 inches of rain – almost triple the normal amount for August.  As a result, the Chena River received far more water than usual and passed its flood stage. At the time, there was no stream gauging equipment on the Chena upstream of Fairbanks so the people and scientists did not know how bad the flooding would be.  Flooding by August 14th was bad and many people evacuated. About 7,000 to 8,000 sheltered at UAF, which given its elevation was out of the flood waters.

Although Fairbanks is situated in a flood plain, we have not experienced flooding of this magnitude since. Read the following articles, and answer the questions below:

  1. Why have we not had such severe floods since 1967?
  2.  Briefly describe at least one positive outcome that emerged as a result of the flood damage and losses.

Optional – If you live in Fairbanks, I encourage you to take the Flood Tour set up last summer in commemoration. See below for the map!

More photos from the flood:

EOTW# 9: The St Francis Dam Disaster

For this week, we are going to explore a human+geology caused disaster to bring awareness to the issues we can have when dealing with large-scale infrastructure as well.

On March 12th 1928 at approximately 11:58 PM, the St Francis dam om California failed, resulting in a ~5.5 hour-long flood through the Santa Paula-Ventura area in California. More than 400 people died during the resulting flood. The St Francis dam was built in San Francisquito canyon to hold water that was running through the California Aqueduct from the Owens Valley. The dam was approximately 205 feet high  and spanned 1225 feet along its crest and 150 feet at its base across a narrow spot in the valley and canyon. The dam was 160 feet thick. The dam construction was overseen by William Mullholland, who at the time was one of the architects of the massive growth of Los Angeles – made possible in large measure by the piping of water from the Owens Valley and other parts of California, to the growing and thirsty town. While he had worked on another dam (Mulholland dam), Mulholland was essentially a “self-taught” civil engineer. The dam failure is considered one of the worst civil-engineering disasters in US history. The failure was originally thought to have resulted from issues with the dam’s foundation. More recent work indicates that the ground beneath the dam also played a role, in the form of water-saturation re-mobilizing an old landslide structure (see quote below for more details*).

For this week’s assignment, read the following Smithsonian Magazine article that explains the history leading up to, during, and following the disaster and answer a couple questions:

1) How much water was released during the dam failure?

2) How were people downstream warned of the coming flood, once people realized what was happening?

3) Take a little tour in Google Earth in the region, by searching for St Francis Dam.  From your search, can you figure out how the water is now stored in this region to serve LA?

Related image

Photo from

*”Although opinions vary, more recent and more thorough investigations assign the ultimate failure mode to weakening of the left abutment foundation rock due to the saturated condition created by the reservoir which essentially re-activated a large landslide that combined with a destabilizing uplift force on the main dam caused failure to initiate at the dam’s left end. In quick succession as catastrophic failure was occurring at the left end, the maximum height section tilted and rotated which destabilized the right end of the main dam causing catastrophic failure at the right end as well.” (

Additional Resources and Sources of information for the post:

EOTW #8 Building Resilient Communities

The EOTW for this week is not so much an event, but a tool to get you all thinking beyond your Case Studies for what comes next in the course. Units 7 and 8 will focus on societal implications and issues and preparedness. One of the key parts of being a prepared community is resilience. Resilience is really a mitigation tool. Once a community recognizes which areas it has that are vulnerable to a particular disaster or disasters, it can make the decision to reduce the risk by increasing resilience. The word resilience means to be “able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.” (from the google dictionary). The two parts to this equation are to be able to withstand a disaster, as well as be able to recover quickly. It turns out that the National Institute of Standards and Techonology (NIST) has a program to help communities develop resilience to disasters. To get our brains thinking beyond the disasters we studied for Units 5 and 6, read the article by NIST and answer the questions below:

  1. Describe one new thing you learned from this article that shows that we are working in our country to improve our resilience
  2. Can you take what you learned and think of one way that your own community might be able to increase its resilience to a likely future disaster?

EOTW #7 The Great Flood of 1862

During December 1861 in California, it started raining and raining and raining and snowing in the mountains. After approximately two decades of drought, it rained for approximately four months, depositing so much water that massive regions in California flooded. Large portions of the Central Valley flooded, and approximately 66 inches of rain fell on typically arid Los Angeles. The result was huge losses of cattle from the ranch lands (1/4 of the total head in the state), houses and buildings due to widespread, and often very deep, flooding.  Sacramento, the state’s capital, was submerged in water. Flooding was extensive over several western states, including Oregon and Arizona. The phenomena responsible is called an “atmospheric river”.  Just this week, an atmospheric river delivered significant rain to the already vulnerable regions around Santa Barbara and Ventura, resulting in renewed called for evacuations due to possible mudflows in regions impacted by the Thomas fire. For this EOTW comment assignment, read the first two articles below. I include the USGS website as another tool you can use to learn more about the potential for future mega flooding in the state, as well as maps and assessments of vulnerable populations. Then, answer the following questions:

1) What are atmospheric rivers? About how often do megafloods impact the California and western states regions?

2) Approximately how extensive was the 1861-62 event in terms of geography? (ie which states and countries were impacted)?

3) How well do you think the public is aware of the mega flood hazard, compared with earthquake hazards, in California and other western states?

EOTW #6 Earthquake Early Warning Systems

This event of the week is really more of a “monitoring and mitigation tool” of the week: the Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system. This potentially life-saving tool has been in the news recently as the US government prepares the next budget. But, what is it exactly, how does it work, who would it help save, and where has it been used successfully? I think that it is important for us all to be aware of the science behind the EEW and to also be aware that there are countries that already have early warning systems and that they have already proven to be successful. So, for this week, I would like us all to learn more about the status of EEW in the US, how it would work, what type of seismic network is needed, and compare/contrast where we are in the stage of development versus other countries that already have this type of system operational.

  1. Read all the earthquake early warning system sections on the following webpage:
  2. Briefly, how does the early warning system work?
  3. List the countries that currently have early warning systems in place (hint – the US does not yet have a fully operational version so should not be included in this list)
  4. See if you can find a recent example from the news where an early warning system alerted people ahead of an earthquake – how much time did they have to take cover? What type of alert was used (text, siren, combination?)

EOTW #5 – 2015 M8.3 earthquake in Chile

There have been a few recent hazardous events that could have been much worse. One of these is the 2015 magnitude 8.3 Illapel earthquake that struck 46 km offshore of Illapel Chile, about 177 miles north of the nation’s capital of Santiago. This earthquake caused a tsunami that traveled across the Pacific ocean, triggering tsunami warnings from Hawaii to Japan and to California. There is a really cool animation showing the propagation of the tsunami, which created a pattern of standing waves across the Pacific Ocean Basin about 24 hours later:

Although this event was truly a great earthquake and caused much greater shaking than the 2015 Nepal M7.9 earthquake, or the 2010 Haiti M7.0 earthquake, it resulted in about 10 fatalities. In contrast, about 8,000 people lost their lives during the Nepal earthquake and nearly 200,000 lost their lives during the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Read the following articles, and answer the questions below:

Popular Science article on 2015 Chile earthquake and tsunami

New York Times Article on the 2015 Chile event

  1. Why did the Chilean event result in tremendously low loss of life compared with Nepal and Haiti?
  2. Approximately how many people were evacuated during the tsunami warning?
  3. Explain one reason why Chile is so well-prepared compared with other countries like Haiti and Nepal?

A note about the disaster games – they are not supposed to be easy

Just a little background and info about the disaster games in general – they are not supposed to be necessarily easy to “win”. There is not a simple progression of tasks involved to get to zero loss of life or zero building damage or costs. This is why I want you all to try playing your game at least a couple of times so you can see if you learn the types of strategies needed to mitigate the losses. This makes them more like real life, which is kind of the point. While playing one of the games, you might be faced with making quick decisions based on several different lines of data you are not immediately familiar with. In real life when working with monitoring, forecasting, and risk assessments – you might be encountering similar things. You might have to deal with quickly changing data that is informing you about how the event is evolving, and how much impacts there are – and make decisions based on limited or even faulty data.

In the end, you might feel a little frustrated with the games, but they are designed to be challenging. Although they are not perfect and they can be a little buggy, it is the best thing out there to give you all at least a little experience about the unpredictable and constantly changing realm of forecasting and mitigation while a model disaster is unfolding.

EOTW #4: The 2013 Rim Fire – WUI, Social Media, and Fire Supression

The Rim Fire started August 17, 2013 in the Stanislaus National Forest by a hunter who had started an illegal fire that got out of control. The fire burned more than 257,000 acres, and is currently the fourth largest wildfire in California history. It burned 11 homes, 3 commercial buildings, and 98 outbuildings. Hot temperatures, severe drought, and a long-term program of fire suppression in California helped fuel this enormous, intense wildfire event. These types of wildfires are becoming more frequent in the western US. A consensus appears to be emerging between scientists and wildfire experts that these wildfires are becoming more intense because of several things: climate change fueling drought and higher temperatures, leading to drier conditions; encroachment of urban areas into wildlands (the Wildland-Urban-Interface – WUI – is expanding); and a years-long policy of fire suppression (particularly because of the expanding WUI and landowners wanting protection from fires). Fire suppression and recent climate swings have resulted in a lot of overgrowth in the forests in the region.

There were a few issues surrounding this event that are worth exploring because they are relevant to other disaster events. One of the issues involved the spreading of false rumors over social media:

Decades of fire suppression and lack of funding for forest management has created regions that are overgrown, fueling faster spread of fires:

For this EOTW, read the two articles linked above and answer the following questions:

1) Why did the fire grow extremely rapidly in the Stanislaus National Forest, but in  Yosemite National Park the fire did not grow or spread nearly as fast?

2) Do a quick search on google and find another disaster event that involved social media – briefly describe whether social media was a good source of information or was involved in spreading fear through untrue reporting.