CWU among stakeholders in $15 million regional earthquake research center

  • September 11, 2023
  • Central Washington Univesrity

CWU among stakeholders in $15 million regional earthquake research center

Central Washington University is among a consortium of U.S. institutions involved in the development of a new earthquake research center that will be funded by a $15 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

The University of Oregon is leading the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT) initiative, which will study the Cascadia subduction zone and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. CRESCENT will be the first center of its kind in the nation focused on earthquakes at subduction zones, where one tectonic plate slides beneath another.

The center will unite scientists studying the possible impacts of a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, an offshore tectonic plate boundary that stretches more than 620 miles from southern British Columbia to northern California. Among its key pillars, CRESCENT will advance earthquake research, foster community partnerships, and diversify and train the next generation geosciences work force.

“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,” said Diego Melgar, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon and director of the new center. “The center organizes us, focuses collaboration, and identifies key priorities, rather than these institutions competing.”

CRESCENT includes researchers from 16 institutions around the United States. UO earth scientists Valerie Sahakian and Amanda Thomas are lead investigators and will work alongside Melgar to develop the center.

One of the co-investigators on the leadership team is CWU Geological Sciences Professor Tim Melbourne, who manages the CWU-based Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array (PANGA), one of the many geophysical monitoring networks whose data will be used by CRESCENT-affiliated researchers. He will be joined by co-investigators from Oregon State University and the University of Washington.

“There have been so many discoveries that shape our understanding of Cascadia’s hazards that need to both be communicated with regional stakeholders and incorporated into society's planning for the future,” Melbourne said. “CRESCENT was uniquely designed to do just this.”

PANGA uses continuous GPS measurements to measure, in real-time, the crustal deformation that drives earthquakes and tsunamis throughout Cascadia. The CWU Geodesy Lab serves as the primary GPS analysis center for both earthquake and tsunami early-warning systems being used throughout the Northwest and globally.

The Cascadia subduction zone has a long history of spurring large earthquakes, but scientists have only started to realize its power within the last few decades. Research shows that the fault is capable of producing an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 or greater—and communities along the West Coast are ill-prepared for a quake this powerful.

Such an event would set off a cascade of deadly natural hazards in the Cascadia region, from tsunamis to landslides. It could cause buildings and bridges to collapse, disrupt power and gas lines, and leave water supplies inaccessible for months.

“There are many instrumental arrays, PANGA included, that will be brought to bear on the some of the bigger unresolved questions about Cascadia,” Melbourne said.

The work that will take place at CRESCENT is expected to mitigate that damage. Scientists in the center will use the latest technology—including high-performance computing and artificial intelligence—to understand the complex dynamics of a major subduction zone earthquake.

The investigators will gather data and develop tools to better forecast specific local and regional impacts from a quake. That knowledge will help communities become better prepared, by improving infrastructure and nailing down more informed emergency plans.

“Modeling the shaking from California to Canada is a gigantic endeavor,” Sahakian said. “The center enables us to make bigger strides in models, products, and lines of research, to work with engineers to create better building codes and actionable societal outcomes.”

Subduction zones in the U.S. are understudied compared to other kinds of faults, and they create distinctive earthquake dynamics that still aren’t fully understood, Melgar said. Therefore, the lessons learned from CRESCENT’s work could also be applied to subduction zones in Alaska, the Caribbean, and in other parts of the world. 

Community collaboration will be a major part of the center’s work. The CRESCENT team will work with communities impacted by hazards, regularly soliciting their input to guide research priorities. They also will build connections with public agencies, tribal groups, and private industry, so the center’s scientific advances will translate into community action and policy.

Another key goal of the center will be to increase diversity in geosciences and train the next generation of geoscientists in the latest technologies. For example, it will engage with minority-serving and tribal high schools to raise interest in and create pathways to geoscience careers, and provide fieldwork stipends and year-round paid research assistantships to support undergraduates.

“The center will conduct research that is directly relevant to earthquake and tsunami hazards but too ambitious for any one scientist to take on individually,” said Thomas, the Chief Technical Officer for CRESCENT. “Our goal is to create community-endorsed research products that are immediately relevant for science and hazard estimates.”

Building resiliency in the region to face of “The Big One” is a much greater task than any institution can undertake on its own, Melgar added. Through the collaboration, community engagement, and scientific advances that CRESCENT enables, the Cascadia region’s shaky foundations will be strengthened.

“CRESCENT will enable broad collaboration at targeted research questions, as well as allow us to effectively communicate these discoveries to the greater public as they are made,” Melbourne said.

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