While wildfires and hurricanes have taken center stage in the realm of disasters, the looming threat of a massive earthquake continues to simmer beneath the surface in the Pacific Northwest.
Today, the National Science Foundation has unveiled a new initiative, injecting $15 million in funding over the course of five years to establish the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT). This cutting-edge facility will find its home at the University of Oregon, with the University of Washington serving as a prominent partner.
The primary focus of this research endeavor will revolve around the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an extensive fault line stretching over 620 miles from the northern edge of Vancouver Island, B.C., to Cape Mendocino in Northern California. Along this fault, tectonic plates beneath the ocean engage in a tumultuous process known as “subduction,” where they forcefully slide beneath the North American continental plate. However, these plates do not glide smoothly; instead, they accumulate frictional stress that ultimately finds release in the form of a seismic earthquake.
Subduction zone earthquakes are some of the most potent in the natural world, and historical records suggest that the Cascadia region is overdue for one.
Diego Melgar, the director of the center at the University of Oregon, stated, “The primary objective of the center is to unify the extensive community of geoscientists working in the Cascadia region, enabling them to collaborate effectively towards a common goal.”
Remarkably, this new center will be the very first in the United States dedicated specifically to studying subduction earthquakes.
Sixteen distinct organizations will join forces in this collaborative effort, prioritizing cooperation over competition. Researchers will harness advanced technologies, including high-performance computing and artificial intelligence, to simulate the kind of colossal “megathrust” earthquakes that this fault line could potentially generate.
Harold Tobin, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, expressed, “This NSF Center will revolutionize earthquake research in the Pacific Northwest; it will have tangible, real-world implications for public safety policies and disaster preparedness.” Tobin will spearhead the initiative for the University of Washington.
The scientific investigations will delve deep into the fault’s intricacies, pinpointing areas of heightened strain, and endeavor to forecast the potential repercussions of an earthquake. This information will be invaluable in aiding communities to brace themselves for such an event.
It is worth noting that on February 28, 2001, the Seattle area experienced the Nisqually earthquake, registering at 6.8 magnitude, causing substantial damage to buildings and roadways.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone, if activated, could unleash a cataclysmic 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a staggering 100 times more powerful than the Nisqually quake, capable of toppling structures, severing power and gas lines, inducing landslides, and triggering a tsunami.
In addition to funding CRESCENT, the NSF has allocated an extra $6 million for the establishment of a second center, the Statewide California Earthquake Center (SCEC).
Furthermore, this funding initiative will also support programs aimed at promoting diversity within the field of geosciences.