UW News

September 8, 2023

UW a lead partner on new NSF-funded earthquake research center

tsunami evacuation sign

A tsunami evacuation sign along Washington’s coast.Rob Witter/USGS

The University of Washington is a lead partner on a new multi-institution earthquake research center based at the University of Oregon that the National Science Foundation announced Sept. 8 will receive $15 million over five years to study the Cascadia subduction zone and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center, or 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 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from southern British Columbia to Northern California. The center 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 center director Diego Melgar at the University of Oregon. “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 in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The leadership team includes investigators from the UW, Oregon State University and Central Washington University.

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 U.S. 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.

CRESCENT’s work can help mitigate that damage. Scientists will use the latest technology — including high-performance computing and artificial intelligence — to understand the complex dynamics of a major subduction zone earthquake. They will gather data and develop tools to better forecast specific local and regional impacts from a quake. That knowledge will help communities to better prepare, by improving infrastructure and nailing down more informed emergency plans.

Valerie Sahakian and Amanda Thomas are co-lead investigators at the University of Oregon.

“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.”

map of West Coast with arrows

The arrows show the velocity, or speed and direction, of movement at GPS stations in the Cascadia region. The black arrow at the lower left is for scale, showing 2 inches (5 cm) per year.Brendan Crowell/University of Washington

Subduction zones in the U.S. are understudied compared to other kinds of faults, and create distinctive earthquake dynamics that still aren’t fully understood, Melgar said. So the lessons learned from CRESCENT’s work could also be applied to subduction zones in Alaska, the Caribbean and around 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. And they’ll build connections with public agencies, tribal groups, and private industry, so that scientific advances from the center will get translated into community action and policy.

The center will also work 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 undergraduate students.

Harold Tobin, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, leads the effort at the UW.

“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 Tobin, who holds the Paros Endowed Chair in Seismology and Geohazards and serves as Washington’s state seismologist.

“Initial CRESCENT efforts include identifying key faults — both on land and under the sea — that present earthquake and tsunami hazard, measuring and modeling movements of the crust that could show us where earthquake strain is building, and much more.”

Brendan Crowell, a research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, will lead the working group studying seismic activity and slow slip, the more gradual movements along a fault.

“The end goal is to have a community-driven model that describes all of the tectonic structures of Cascadia,” Crowell said. “The objective of CRESCENT is about creating systematic and foundational community science, adapting the best techniques and methods available for use by the seismic community in our region. It will change the process of how we do this science.”

Also initially involved from the UW are Cailey Condit, an assistant professor of Earth and space sciences; David Schmidt, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences; and William Wilcock, a professor of oceanography who holds the Jerome M. Paros Endowed Chair in Sensor Networks.

The center will include staff at the U.S. Geological Survey, including affiliate UW faculty members Erin Wirth, Joan Gomberg and Alex Grant, and members of the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which will continue to perform real-time monitoring and communication of seismic risks in the region.

For more information, contact Tobin at htobin@uw.edu or 206-543-6790, Crowell at crowellb@uw.edu and Melgar at dmelgarm@uoregon.edu or 541-346-3488.

Adapted from a University of Oregon press release.


Other CRESCENT participating institutions are:

Cal Poly Humboldt

Cedar Lake Research Group

EarthScope Consortium

Portland State University

Purdue University

Smith College

Stanford University

University of California – San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography

University of North Carolina-Wilmington

Virginia Tech

Washington State University

Western Washington University