In 1964, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America—a colossal magnitude 9.2—struck in Prince William Sound along the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone. The ground rocked for several minutes, shaking loose mountainsides and cliff faces that collapsed into narrow fjords, generating fast-moving “local” tsunami waves that inundated coastal communities within minutes.
Hours later, seismic waves arrived, further devastating the state. Another massive earthquake is inevitable—but tsunamis might not wait for it. Already, the state's 600-plus glaciers are retreating at a record-breaking pace, leaving behind unstable slopes ready to collapse into deep fjords even without an earthquake trigger.
When people think about tsunamis, Alaska likely isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the intersection of a massive, poorly understood subduction zone and complex coastal geography—fjords, volcanoes, 35-foot tides, and unstable underwater glacial sediment deposits along 37,000 miles of shoreline—exists nowhere else on Earth. It’s a deadline combination, and a difficult one to communicate to the state’s diverse, remote, and highly independent communities—including Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox villages that don’t speak English.
However, an interdisciplinary state team of tsunami numerical modelers, emergency managers, and geologists has taken up the challenge. For decades, they’ve traveled town to town, creating community-specific inundation maps and fighting disaster amnesia with school lectures and tireless outreach. They hope to reach every coastal Alaskan resident before it’s too late—before disaster strikes again.
This project follows that team’s efforts on the ground, from the small village of Seldovia, only accessible by boat and bush plane, to the Alaskan metropolis of Anchorage. Along the way, the team fights myths and reckons with the fast-changing landscape of tsunamis in The Last Frontier.