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New earthquake research center receives $15M to advance understanding of the Cascadia Subduction Zone

Cracked pavement following an earthquake.
United States Geological Survey
A portion of pavement on Washington State Route 302 after the Nisqually earthquake of 2001.

For decades, scientists have been independently studying the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs from northern California to British Columbia. Now, there's a centralized research hub where all that is known—and still unknown about this fault—can be shared.

Led by the University of Oregon, the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center, or CRESCENT, includes researchers from 14 institutions. All are dedicated to the study of the 620-mile fault. The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded $15 million to CRESCENT.

Andrew Meigs is a professor of Geology at Oregon State University in the College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences and a senior staff member with the Center. He said subduction zones are a true frontier.

“Of all the different kinds of faults that generate earthquakes, subduction zones are some of the least well understood,” said Meigs. “And, at the same time, subduction zones produce the largest kinds of earthquakes possible.”

Graphic of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Oregon Office of Emergency Management
The Cascadia Subduction Zone is about 70-100 miles off the Pacific coast shoreline. There have been 43 earthquakes in the last 10,000 years within this fault. The last earthquake that occurred in this fault was on January 26, 1700, with an estimated 9.0 magnitude.

Past research indicates there have been quakes of up to magnitude 9.0 along the Cascadia. When will the “big one” strike? Meigs said CRESCENT will train the next generation of geoscientists so that they can take on Cascadia’s biggest questions in the future.

Three major pillars comprise the work of CRESCENT: building on foundational science, engaging and training students to be the next generation of geoscientists and strengthening community collaborations to improve natural disaster resiliency and preparedness.

Meigs said the number one way folks can respond to the threat of earthquake hazards is to be ready to be self-sufficient.

“Meaning, prepare ourselves to be independent for time periods that range from 24 hours to two weeks or more, depending on the severity of the event,” he said.

People around the world watch as rural parts of Morocco continue to dig out of the rubble following this month’s powerful earthquake. The death toll is now more than 2,900 and there are at least as many injured. The U.S. Geological survey measured the Amizmiz, Morocco quake at a 6.8 magnitude.

OSU Professor Meigs said when we talk about the “big one,” or any powerful natural hazards like earthquakes-- it’s important to remember they're associated with cascading events.

“You have the earthquake, but that elicits a tsunami afterwards and there can be widespread land sliding, and there can be liquefaction,” he said. “Earthquakes are also associated with fires because they affect natural gas, electric and other energy sources.”

Vehicle crushed under rubble following earthquake.
In the aftermath of the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, a large vehicle lies crushed beneath a pile of fallen rubble. Geoscientist said the quake had a moment magnitude of 6.8. The epicenter was in the southern Puget Sound, WA but the shock was felt in Oregon, British Columbia, eastern Washington and Idaho.

So, the geology professor insisted, it’s important to think holistically about the full breadth of the problem as another dimension of preparedness. “Something that the CRESCENT project will strive to do is try to fully understand, in a unified way, all the related hazards from the earthquake itself.”

Meigs will lead the workforce development pillar of CRESCENT. “One of the things that we are very excited about is educating the next generation of earthquake scientists,” he said, “by specifically targeting underrepresented minors and indigenous groups of students for inclusion in a variety of different training and experiential opportunities within the Center."

CRESCENT is keen on building community, Meigs said.

“This notion extends from the person who lives at the coast to the agencies in our state that are responsible for emergency management and communication of preparation and risk reducing strategies,” he said.

CRESCENT staff said their goal is to take advantage of emerging cutting-edge laboratories, modeling and computational tools and provide a more holistic idea of the seismic hazard posed by the subduction zone.

In addition to UO and OSU, institutions involved in the project include Portland State University, University of Washington, Central Washington University, Western Washington University, Cal Poly-Humboldt, Purdue University, Smith College, Stanford University, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, University of California, San Diego, Virginia Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.