Prepping for ‘The Big One’: $15M going toward earthquake research

Sep 12, 2023, 6:58 AM

earthquake research...

Parked cars are covered with bricks on February 28, 2001, after an earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, hit Seattle and surrounding areas, causing widespread damage and dozens of injuries. (Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images)

When discussing “The Big One,” the earthquake of a generation, in the Pacific Northwest, it generally comes down to “not if, but when?”

Many would argue this region has been lucky, perhaps too lucky. The lack of a major earthquake may be lulling the people in this area into a false sense of security.

On Feb. 28, 2001, the Seattle area experienced the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake, which damaged buildings and roadways.

Related news: Earthquake robbed Moroccan villagers of almost everything — loved ones, homes and possessions

Subduction zone quakes are the largest observed and, based on records, the region is due for one. The Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) could create a 9.0 magnitude quake, which would be 100 times more powerful than the Nisqually quake and could collapse buildings, break power and gas lines, and trigger landslides and a tsunami.

To help prepare, $15 million in federal funding, announced Monday, will assist scientists in studying the northwest subduction zone.

The money is coming from The National Science Foundation and will help fund the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center at the University of Oregon.

The University of Washington is the lead partner in this effort to help communities prepare for a massive earthquake from the Cascadia fault.

“This NSF Center will be a game-changer for earthquake research in the Pacific Northwest; it will have direct, real-world public safety consequences for policy and planning,” said Harold Tobin, a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington (UW) and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, in a statement. Tobin will lead the effort for UW.

The research will focus on the CSZ, a fault stretching more than 620 miles from the northern edge of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to Cape Mendocino in Northern California. Along the fault, the tectonic plates beneath the ocean are shoving under or “subducting” beneath the North American continental plate. But the plates don’t slide smoothly and instead build up frictional stress that is released in a quake.

“The main goal of the center is to bring together the large group of geoscientists working in Cascadia to march together to the beat of a singular drum,” center director Diego Melgar at the University of Oregon said in a statement.

Sixteen organizations will team up for the effort. The researchers will leverage technology including high-performance computing and artificial intelligence to model the sort of “megathrust” quakes the fault could generate.

More on earthquakes in the PNW: Discovery leads UW scientists to better understand the threat

The scientists will study the fault to identify locations of increased strain and work to forecast the potential impacts of an earthquake to better help communities prepare for an event.

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Prepping for ‘The Big One’: $15M going toward earthquake research