UW News

April 28, 2021

UW launches GeoHazards Initiative; names Paros Chair in Seismology and GeoHazards

UW News

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The UW’s GeoHazards Initiative aims to study earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and volcanos to prevent the loss of life and property.University of Washington

Leveraging the tectonic laboratory of the Cascadia subduction zone, the University of Washington today announced a new effort to best understand how to study and live with the threats of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos, landslides and other seismic hazards. Dubbed the GeoHazards Initiative, the interdisciplinary work aims to develop and promote the adoption of early detection systems both on land and at sea to help prevent the loss of human life and property.

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Harold Tobin

“The vision ultimately is for an integrated initiative that will span geohazards and their impact on society,” said Harold Tobin, the newly named Paros Endowed Chair in Seismology and Geohazards. “A big goal of this new effort is to bring together the strengths of different pieces of the UW research community to tackle all these problems in a truly novel way that can help us make progress on understanding all of those hazardous events and how to mitigate their damaging effects.”

The initiative’s starting place will be focused on sensors, both on land and at sea, that can help scientists better understand seismic events and how to detect them as they begin, and even to determine times and places where risk may be heightened.

“We need to be able to detect movement deep beneath the ground both on land and under the ocean equally, in order to take this to the next level,” Tobin said, who already is the Washington state seismologist, directs the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, and is a professor in the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. “And that’s traditionally been two different realms here at the university. But really it’s all an Earth process and we need to work together.”

Tobin will initially partner with researchers in the UW School of Oceanography and the UW Applied Physics Lab, with hopes to bring other parts of the university in as the research progresses.

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Jerome Paros

The work is fueled by a $2 million gift from Jerome “Jerry” M. Paros to fund the named chair. Additionally, UW will match that gift with $2 million to be used over 20 years to launch and support the initiative.

“The UW is uniquely positioned to be a leader in understanding how geohazards impact our lives,” said Paros, a leader in the field of geophysical measurements. He is the founder, president and chairman of Paroscientific, Inc., Quartz Seismic Sensors, Inc. and related companies that use the quartz crystal resonator technology he developed to measure pressure, acceleration, temperature, weight and other parameters. “We just now are beginning to have better detection systems on land and at sea. This effort knits these resources together under Harold’s direction. We couldn’t be better positioned to push this work forward, ideally protecting property and saving lives.”

Paros has supported science and education with philanthropic endowments at universities and organizations across the country. His prior contributions to the UW include the endowment of the Jerome M. Paros Chair in Sensor Networks and the Cascade Sensor Network Fund. These gifts support the research, development and deployment of new instrumentation and measurement systems that will advance cross-disciplinary knowledge in the oceanic, atmospheric and Earth sciences. In addition, Paros established the Paros Fund for Brain Research at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

With the Paros Endowed Chair in Seismology and Geohazards, Tobin now has a platform from which to launch the development of new sensing systems on land and under the sea, build coalitions of public and private stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and engage policymakers at the state and federal levels.

The initiative will launch new research to design, build and deploy arrays of ocean sensors to detect earthquakes, tsunamis and seafloor motion, and to provide data transmission that connects onshore and offshore observations to effectively detect emerging geohazards and mitigate against disasters.

Technological options for the array could include sensors connected to cables on the seafloor, attached to both dedicated research cables and existing commercial telecom cables. Arrays could also include offshore boreholes, standalone stations on the seafloor that store their data, and mobile platforms like drones or buoys.

“Offshore sensors can help provide early warning for earthquakes and tsunamis, and help advance scientific understanding of what’s happening under the ocean in the Cascadia subduction zone,” said William Wilcock, the Jerome M. Paros Endowed Chair in Sensor Networks and professor in the School of Oceanography, who will also work on the GeoHazards Initiative.

“We already have systems on land that can provide early warnings of seismic events, but we now are developing technologies that can help us better understand earthquakes under the ocean and the tsunamis they produce,” Wilcock said.

The researchers said they plan to investigate the fault systems onshore and offshore using geophysical imaging and direct measurements for groundtruthing to gain insight into the geohazard sources and processes.

“These activities will build a strategic alliance across the university to position UW as the foremost hub of subduction hazard research, positioning us to compete for emerging national and international opportunities,” Tobin said.

He said it was an honor to receive this new endowed chair in Paros’ name, a man who has personally been a driving force in the development of geophysical sensors that are in use across the world.

“I feel a responsibility to really make this initiative be effective and serve as a platform to work on these problems at a larger scale,” Tobin said. “We in Western Washington literally inhabit the subduction zone — the place where two plates meet — that is this perfect place to study all these processes from within them. And the University of Washington has the kind of critical mass of expertise and people, and the forward-looking science and technology, to really take concrete steps to leap forward our understanding not just for Washington but for the world.”

For more information, reach Tobin at htobin@uw.edu.