UW researchers test Washington’s first-ever earthquake detection system

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network director John Vidale with the system that will be tested next week.

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network director John Vidale with the earthquake warning system that will be tested.

Earth and Space Sciences’ John Vidale, Paul Bodin, and the University of Washington-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team, will soon begin testing the region’s first early warning system for incoming earthquakes. Originally developed for use in California, the system will create an automated alert giving people anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute’s warning before an earthquake’s S waves begin to shake the ground. Testing on a trial group, which includes local economic powerhouses like Boeing and Microsoft, will occur throughout the next year, and with adequate funding alerts could be available to the public within a few years. Vidale, Bodin, and the PNSN’s team of scientists working on this project hope to eventually provide simple, fast, and uniform earthquake early warning coverage to the entire region in order to protect people and infrastructure. Long term, the technology could extend into other earthquake-prone areas like Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, and Alaska.

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UW researchers prep for the next Cascadia megaquake

Tsunami building

Tsunami safe areas in the future may include building rooftops.

Earth and Space Sciences’ Frank Gonzalez, John Vidale, and Arthur Frankel, along with other scientists from across the University of Washington, are teaming up to better prepare our region for the next massive megaquake off the Pacific Northwest coast. Their efforts include designing the first tsunami evacuation structure in the United States, development of a campus-wide research project on major earthquakes, and the upcoming rollout of early earthquake alerts. Their work coincides with the 315th anniversary of the Cascade Earthquake, which caused vast destruction and triggered a tsunami that reached across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. That magnitude nine earthquake was set into motion along the West Coast via the still-active Cascadia fault.

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How the ‘Beast Quake’ is helping scientists track real earthquakes

Seismometer locations

Seismometer locations in and around CenturyLink Field.

It’s not just the football players who have spent a year training. University of Washington seismologists will again be monitoring the ground-shaking cheers of Seahawks fans, this year with a bigger team, better technology and faster response times. Scientists with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network will install instruments this Thursday to provide real-time monitoring of the stadium’s movement during the 2015 NFL playoffs. This year, the UW researchers have also upped their game. A new QuickShake tool will provide a faster connection between the sensors and the website. This Saturday will be the first test of the software that displays vibrations within three seconds – five to 10 times faster and more reliably than readings from the same sensors installed last year.

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network

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Oso disaster had its roots in earlier landslides

An aerial view of the slide site at Oso, Washington.

An aerial view of the slide site at Oso, Washington.

An interdisciplinary team of risk analysis experts, engineers, and scientists — including Earth and Spaces Sciences’ David Montgomery — released a report on Tuesday offering details about the Oso landslide that happened earlier this year. The  report focuses on observations and data collection where the landslide occurred, reviews nearby geologic conditions and land-use and landslide risk assessments, and collects eyewitness accounts of the disaster. A major finding of the report shows that the slide took place in two phases, the first of which was the “remobilization” of an earlier slide dating back to 2006.

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Geophysicists prep for massive ‘ultrasound’ of Mount St. Helens

The crater of Mount St. Helens.

The crater of Mount St. Helens.

Scientists are gearing up to get started in earnest this weekend on a massive collaborative effort to map the internal plumbing of Mount St. Helens. The College of the Environment’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences is playing a major role–lead by professor Kenneth Creager–along with numerous other institutions. The researcher’s goal is to better understand the inner workings of the mountain and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range as in order to better protect nearby urban areas.

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Scientists ready to study magma formation beneath Mount St. Helens

Mt St Helens two years after eruption (photo: USGS)
Mt St Helens two years after eruption (photo: USGS)

University and government scientists are embarking on a collaborative research expedition to improve volcanic eruption forecasting by learning more about how a deep-underground feeder system creates and supplies magma to Mount St. Helens. They hope the research will produce science that will lead to better understanding of eruptions, which in turn could lead to greater public safety. The Imaging Magma Under St. Helens project involves three distinct components: active-source seismic monitoring, passive-source seismic monitoring and magnetotelluric monitoring, using fluctuations in Earth’s electromagnetic field to produce images of structures beneath the surface.

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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.


UW experts part of technical team investigating Snohomish County mudslide

A national team co-led by a University of Washington geotechnical engineer will investigate what caused the March 22 mudslide in Snohomish County and what effects the disaster had on the nearby residential communities. The Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association is mobilizing to collect information about the landslide that occurred on a steep slope above the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River near Oso, Wash., more than a week ago, killing more than 20 people with 30 still missing.

Read more on UW Today.

View of Oso landslide from the air

Weldon Wilson
Weldon Wilson, Washington State Patrol

David Montgomery talks to KUOW about the Oso landslide

On Saturday March 22, a powerful landslide occurred above the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso in western Washington. David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences, talks to Ashley Ahearn at KUOW about what causes such slides to occur. Listen to the story on KUOW.

Since this report, Montgomery has shared his expertise through numerous other media outlets, including:

Seattle Times Op-Ed: Map the runout risk for landslides like Oso

New York Times: In a State Known for Landslides, a Deadly Mix of Loose Sediments and Heavy Rain

KUOW: Geological Circumstances Behind Washington Mudslide

PBS NewsHour: Washington state mudslide conditions present ‘nightmare scenario’ for rescue team, says geologist


UW seismologists expand stadium monitoring for NFC championship game

The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network installed a third seismograph at CenturyLink Field this week in the wake of the Seattle Seahawks win over the New Orleans Saints last weekend that provided a trial by fire of the network’s website and new monitoring tools. Before last weekend’s game, network scientists set up two near real-time seismic monitors at CenturyLink to augment data from a third seismograph about a block away. Together they provided a scientific measurement of the energy of Seahawks’ “12th man” – the fans – and the most difficult real-life test for the recently redesigned website, pnsn.org, as fans inundated the site.

Read more in UW Today.

CenturyLink Field
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