Land-sea experiment will track earthquakes, volcanoes along Alaska Peninsula

a close-up profile photo of Emily Roland
Emily Roland, assistant professor in the School of Oceanography and one of nine principal investigators in the study

The National Science Foundation is funding the largest marine seismic-monitoring effort yet along the Alaska Peninsula, a region with frequent and diverse earthquake and volcanic activity. Involving aircraft and ships, the new Alaska Amphibious Community Seismic Experiment will be led by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with partners at the University of Washington and seven other research institutions.

“This effort will really change the information we have at our disposal for understanding the seismic properties of subduction zones,” said Emily Roland, a UW assistant professor of oceanography and one of nine principal investigators on the project.

The experiment will place seismic instruments on and off a 435-mile stretch of coast that includes the communities of Kodiak, King Salmon and Sand Point. The instruments will be deployed starting next spring and will record for 15 months, spanning two summer seasons.

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Distant earthquakes can cause underwater landslides

Paul Johnson headshot
The School of Oceanography’s Paul Johnson, lead author of a new study that shows earthquakes can trigger underwater landslides thousands of miles away.

New research finds that large earthquakes can trigger underwater landslides thousands of miles away, weeks or months after the quake occurs.

Researchers analyzing data from ocean-bottom seismometers off the Washington-Oregon coast tied a series of underwater landslides on the Cascadia Subduction Zone to a 2012 magnitude-8.6 earthquake in the Indian Ocean — more than 8,000 miles away. These underwater landslides occurred intermittently for nearly four months after the April earthquake. Previous work has shown that earthquakes can trigger additional earthquakes on other faults, but this study shows they can also initiate undersea landslides far from the quake.

“The basic assumption is that these marine landslides are generated by the local earthquakes,” said Paul Johnson, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and lead author of the new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “But what our paper said is, ‘No, you can generate them from earthquakes anywhere on the globe.’”

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UW seismologist John Vidale elected to National Academy of Sciences

John E. Vidale, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences, is among 84 new members and 21 foreign associates elected this week as members of the National Academy of Sciences. Academy members are recognized for their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, according to a news release from the academy.

Vidale studies Earth’s interior, including earthquakes and volcanoes. Some of his research at the UW has looked at how volcanoes ‘scream’ before they erupt, how silent earthquakes release energy beneath Puget Sound, and mapping the volcanic plumbing beneath Mount St. Helens using seismic ultrasound. He is director of the UW’s M9 Project, an interdisciplinary effort to prepare for a magnitude-9 earthquake.

Vidale is also active in applied work and public communication about natural hazards. Since 2006 he has directed the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which tracks all seismic activity in the region, and serves as Washington’s state seismologist. He also is involved in the current effort to build a West Coast earthquake early warning system, which would provide seconds to minutes of warning for the damaging effects of a large earthquake.

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Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, USGS and partners launch West Coast earthquake early warning system

University of Washington Professor John Vidale at the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning event on April 10, 2017.

University of Washington
University of Washington Professor John Vidale at the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning event on April 10, 2017.

The U.S. Geological Survey and university, public and private partners held an event April 10 at the University of Washington to introduce the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning program as a unified, West Coast-wide system. The event also introduced the first pilot uses of the earthquake early warning in Washington and Oregon.

The first Pacific Northwest pilot users of the system are Bothell, Wash.-based RH2 Engineering, which will use the alerts to secure municipal water and sewer systems so these structures remain usable after a major quake. Oregon’s first test user, the Eugene Water & Electricity Board, will use alerts to lower water levels in a canal above a residential area in Oregon, and to stop turbines at a river power plant. Both utility providers participated in a beta test group that has been learning about the system since early 2015 from the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which coordinates the system in Washington and Oregon.

“We are thrilled to take the first steps in integrating earthquake early warning into life in the Pacific Northwest,” John Vidale, UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. “Our teamwork has made it possible to reach this milestone so quickly.”

The ShakeAlert system will provide seconds to minutes of warning before damaging shaking arrives. That would be enough time to get out of a dangerous building, turn off a vehicle, stop surgeries and other delicate activities, and prepare for the imminent ground shaking.

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Using a method from Wall Street to track slow slipping of Earth’s crust

A GPS station near Mount St. Helens in September 2014.

Mike Gottlieb/UNAVCO
A GPS station near Mount St. Helens in September 2014.

Stock traders have long used specialized trackers to decide when to buy or sell a stock, or when the market is beginning to make a sudden swing.

A new University of Washington study finds that the same technique can be used to detect gradual movement of tectonic plates, what are called “slow slip” earthquakes. These movements do not unleash damaging amounts of seismic energy, but scientists are just beginning to understand how they may be linked to the Big One.

This new approach can quickly pinpoint slow slips from a single Global Positioning System station. It borrows the financial industry’s relative strength index , a measure of how quickly a stock’s price is changing, to detect slow slips within a string of GPS observations. The paper was published in December in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.

“I’ve always had an interest in finance, and if you go to any stock ticker website there’s all these different indicators,” said lead author Brendan Crowell, a UW research scientist in Earth and space sciences. “This particular index stood out in its ease of use, but also that it needed no information — like stock volume, volatility or other terms — besides the single line of data that it analyzes for unusual behavior.”

The study tests the method on more than 200 GPS stations that recorded slow slips between 2005 and 2016 along the Cascadia fault zone, which runs from northern California up to northern Vancouver Island.

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‘Black swan’ events strike animal populations

A black swan (Cygnus atratus) seen in New Zealand. The black swan metaphor refers to a previous assumption that the birds did not exist, but later were found in the wild — signifying a surprising change of thought.

Bernard Spragg/Flickr
A black swan (Cygnus atratus) seen in New Zealand. The black swan metaphor refers to a previous assumption that the birds did not exist, but later were found in the wild — signifying a surprising change of thought.

Black swan events are rare and surprising occurrences that happen without notice and often wreak havoc on society. The metaphor has been used to describe banking collapses, devastating earthquakes and other major surprises in financial, social and natural systems.

A new analysis by the University of Washington and Simon Fraser University is the first to document that black swan events also occur in animal populations and usually manifest as massive, unexpected die-offs. The results were published online March 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“No one has really looked at the prevalence of these black swan events in animal population abundance before,” said lead author Sean Anderson, a UW postdoctoral researcher in aquatic and fishery sciences. “People associate the phrase with financial market crashes, and being able to take that term and apply it to another system gives context about what we’re seeing in animal populations.”

The researchers analyzed data from more than 600 animal populations, including mammals, birds, fishes and insects. They found that drastic changes in populations occurred in about 4 percent of the animals they surveyed, most commonly in birds.

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New study looks at what lies below Mount St. Helens

The last major eruption of Mount St. Helens, about 50 miles northeast of Portland, was in 1980. The mountain spewed steam and ash in 2004, and has since been rebuilding a new lava dome.
The last major eruption of Mount St. Helens, about 50 miles northeast of Portland, was in 1980. The mountain spewed steam and ash in 2004, and has since been rebuilding a new lava dome.

The reason for the location of Mount St. Helens is an enigma. The volcano lies farther west than other peaks in the Cascades volcanic arc. Research published this week may begin to explain why. The last major eruption of Mount St. Helens, about 50 miles northeast of Portland, was in 1980. The mountain spewed steam and ash in 2004, and has since been rebuilding a new lava dome.

The study was led by scientists at the University of New Mexico with co-authors at the University of Washington, Rice University and Cornell University. All are part of an ambitious effort to use remote sensing to better understand the hidden passageways beneath one of the country’s most dangerous active volcanoes. The UW Environment co-authors are Ken Creager and John Vidale, both professors in the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. Other co-authors are Brandon Schmandt at the University of New Mexico, Alan Levander at Rice University, Eric Kiser at the University of Arizona and Geoff Abers at Cornell University.

The paper, published Nov. 1 in Nature Communications, analyzes compressional waves traveling through the crust and reflecting off the mantle below the volcano. Results show that on one side the mantle is largely serpentinite, a rare, moisture-absorbing, dark-green mineral that can look like a snake’s skin. But the mantle below the eastern half of the mountain is mostly olivine, a common mineral that allows water — thought to play a key role in volcanic eruptions — to percolate up and into the overlying crust.

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Joseph Wartman, David Montgomery honored for Oso landslide report

Joseph Wartman (left) and David Montgomery were among the seven authors of the 186-page report.

University of Washington
Joseph Wartman (left) and David Montgomery were among the seven authors of the 186-page report.

Two University of Washington professors are among researchers honored this week by the Geological Society of America for their study of the March 2014 landslide in Oso, Washington.

The society announced this week that the E.B. Burwell, Jr., Award — the society’s highest prize for engineering geology — will go to the seven authors of a 186-page report published in July 2014 on the causes, behavior, and potential implications of the slide, which killed 43 people. The report compiles findings of an on-site investigation that began just days after the disaster.

UW faculty members Joseph Wartman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences, are among the co-authors of the award-winning paper. All are members of the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association, an organization funded by the National Science Foundation to collect data in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or extreme event.

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UW geologist wins early-career award from American Geophysical Union

Alison DuvallA University of Washington geologist has received the American Geophysical Union’s early career award for researchers in the Earth and space sciences. She is also one of three UW scientists selected to give named lectures at the union’s upcoming annual fall meeting.

Alison Duvall, a UW assistant professor of Earth and space sciences, was selected for the Luna B. Leopold Award for early career scientists. The award recognizes scientists within five years of receiving their doctorate who have made “a significant and outstanding contribution that advances the field of Earth and planetary surface processes.”

The honor is named after Luna Leopold, an American geomorphologist and hydrologist and son of author and conservationist Aldo Leopold. Duvall will accept the honor and deliver the Robert Sharp Lecture in December at the union’s annual fall meeting in San Francisco.

At the same fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, two other UW faculty members will also deliver invited talks. Virginia (Ginger) Armbrust, professor and director of the UW School of Oceanography, will deliver the Rachel Carson Lecture in the ocean sciences section. David Battisti, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences, will deliver the Stephen Schneider Memorial Lecture in the focus group on global environmental change.

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Arc volcano releases mix of material from Earth’s mantle and crust

Basalt, the dominant volcanic rock along the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” is considered a melting product of the Earth’s mantle. On the left is vesicular basalt, in which dissolved gases formed bubbles as the magma decompressed. On the right is a magnesium-rich olivine crystal that formed inside the volcano, embedded in a fine-grained solid. Detailed chemical analyses found that magnesium in arc volcano basalt shows surprising traces of the descending ocean crust.

Dennis Wise/University of Washington
Basalt, the dominant volcanic rock along the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” is considered a melting product of the Earth’s mantle. On the left is vesicular basalt, in which dissolved gases formed bubbles as the magma decompressed. On the right is a magnesium-rich olivine crystal that formed inside the volcano, embedded in a fine-grained solid.

Volcanoes are an explosive and mysterious process by which molten rock from Earth’s interior escapes back into the atmosphere. Why the volcano erupts—and where it draws its lava from—could help trace the lifecycle of materials that make up our planet.

New University of Washington research shows that a common type of volcano is not just spewing molten rock from the mantle, but contains elements that suggest something more complicated is drawing material out of the descending plate of Earth’s crust.

Geologists have long believed that solidified volcanic lava, or basalt, originates in the mantle, the molten rock just below the crust. But the new study uses detailed chemical analysis to find that the basalt’s magnesium—a shiny gray element that makes up about 40 percent of the mantle but is rare in the crust—does not look like that of the mantle, and shows a surprisingly large contribution from the crust. The paper was published the week of June 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Although the volcanic basalt was produced from the mantle, its magnesium signature is very similar to the crustal material,” said lead author Fang-Zhen Teng, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences. “The ocean-floor basalts are uniform in the type of magnesium they contain, and other geologists agree that on a global scale the mantle is uniform,” he said. “But now we found one type of the mantle is not.”

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