Meet Kate Allstadt, self-described “present-day geologist”

Kate Allstadt in front of the Nile Landslide (photo: Kate Allstadt)
Allstadt in front of the Nile Landslide (photo: Kate Allstadt)

What would you do in a big earthquake? Do you know how your neighborhood would fare? Would the ground beneath your house hold firm, or turn into liquid, or break loose in a landslide? If you had a few seconds or minutes warning, how would you prepare knowing a devastating earthquake was about to be unleashed?

In the wake of the nearby 530 Landslide, these are the kinds of questions researchers like Kate Allstadt ask with increasing urgency. Her hope is to make places like Seattle and other places in the Pacific Northwest more resilient in the face of a natural disaster.

Kate and her colleagues are currently working on a National Science Foundation-funded project, called M9 that estimates the shaking from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on the Cascadia Fault, a fissure that lies right off the Washington coast. Their goal is to better understand what geographic areas would be most affected, identify what people would do if they were warned of an imminent threat ahead of time, and help communities better survive such disasters.

“Natural hazards are interesting and exciting…if no one gets hurt, “ says Kate. “My hope is that I can help motivate people to think about what might happen so they can be better prepared.”

Kate received her PhD in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, part of the UW’s College of the Environment, and is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher on campus. She refers to herself as a “present-day geologist” because she tries to connect the unique and active geology of the Pacific Northwest to how it affects people.

Potential landslide areas in Seattle (photo: Google Maps/Kate Allstadt)
Areas prone to landsliding triggered by a magnitude 7.0 Seattle Fault earthquake (photo: Google Images/Kate Allstadt)

A cornerstone of her research as a student looked at areas around Seattle prone to landslides that would be triggered by a major earthquake. Historical evidence of sliding all throughout the greater metropolitan area exists, but no one had asked how that might affect homes, businesses, roads—everything that makes a city a city. Kate connected the two by mapping the parts of Seattle prone to earthquake-induced landslides, and published her work in a high-profile scientific journal. Not only was this a scientific success, but it got the attention and interest of city planners and Seattle leadership. And that connection between science and society landed her research on the coveted front-page of the Seattle Times.

That’s not to say all of Kate’s work has been focused on how disasters affect people. When a strange repeating ‘blip’ was detected on seismometers flanking Mt Rainier in the middle of winter, scientists wondered if it signified an imminent eruption. They ended up ruling that out, but still had no clear answer on its cause. “It was such a puzzle, like a mystery with clues that had to be collected from a very rugged and hostile Alpine environment,” said Kate. With funds from the ESS Graduate Student Research Scholarship Fund, she was able to get up on Mt Rainier and monitor the vibrations. Despite the destruction of several instruments by landslides and storms, she and her collaborators figured out that snow from winter storms increased the load on the glaciers enough to cause some of them to slip jarringly down the mountain rather than flowing quietly as they typically do. This phenomenon had not previously been described scientifically, and ended up being another chapter in her dissertation.

Allstadt and colleagues doing field work on Mt Rainier (photo: courtesy of Kate Allstadt)
Allstadt and colleagues doing field work on Mt Rainier (photo: Kate Allstadt)

Kate came to UW because the Pacific Northwest is rich in natural hazards, and the region had the people and expertise to help her realize her research goals. She joined the lab of UW’s John Vidale and interacted with a host of geologists, volcanologists, seismologists, and others in an “it takes a village” approach to mentoring grad students coming through the ranks.

“What’s been great about my time as a student at UW is that I was given a lot of freedom and flexibility and that allowed me to pursue the research I was most interested in that I also felt was relevant to society,” says Kate. “I am lucky that the allure of the geology of the Pacific Northwest drew me here because it connected me with a fantastic group of mentors and colleagues and opened doors I never would have imagined.”

Her successful research earned her a PhD and post-doctoral appointment at UW, and she will begin another research stint as an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the USGS Cascade Volcano Observatory in Fall 2014.