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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Nature spotlights UW geophysicists’ fight to save lives with seafloor sensors

Inventor Jerry Paros

Ian C. Bates for Nature
Inventor Jerry Paros

Inventor and entrepreneur Jerry Paros and University of Washington scientists are monitoring undersea faults for movements and signs of the next catastrophic earthquake. A recent Nature article looks at Paros, who has donated $2 million to the UW, and the collaborative project he’s working on with researchers including the School of Oceanography’s Emily Roland and William Wilcock. Over the course of his career, Paros developed an ultra-precise quartz sensor for oil, gas and other industry applications. These sensors, which are capable of helping scientists detect movements on the seafloor to within one centimeter, are now being tested off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Paros hopes that his super-accurate gauges will be the heart of an early warning system designed to detect when an earthquake shifts the seafloor, triggering a tsunami.

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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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UW’s Kristin Laidre awarded Pew marine fellowship to study effects of climate change, subsistence hunting on polar bears

“Tumass, NW Greenland.” The man photographed is a polar bear subsistence hunter in the Arctic.

Tiina Itkonen
“Tumass, NW Greenland.” The man photographed is a polar bear subsistence hunter in the Arctic.

Polar bears depend on sea ice for essential tasks like hunting and breeding. As Arctic sea ice disappears due to climate change, bears across the species’ 19 subpopulations are feeling the strain.

But even as scientists try to quantify just how much melting sea ice is affecting polar bears, another group that depends on the iconic mammal for subsistence also is at risk of losing an important nutritional and economic resource. Indigenous people throughout the Arctic harvest polar bears each year. How that activity ― combined with climate change over the long term ― will impact bear populations in the future requires more science and monitoring.

A new, two-part University of Washington project aims to explore the interacting effects of climate change and subsistence hunting on polar bears, while also illuminating the cultural value of the species to indigenous peoples and the role they play in conservation. Led by Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the UW’s Polar Science Center and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the three-year project will include a public art-science exhibition that combines photography, storytelling and science focused on polar bears, climate change and local Inuit communities in Greenland.

“Broadly, people know polar bears are negatively affected by loss of sea ice, so they are understandably upset to hear polar bears are also being hunted,” Laidre said. “The reality is, the reason for the projected decline of polar bears is a much bigger, global problem related to human-caused climate change and is largely unrelated to harvest. Managing and conserving polar bears in a changing climate has to include working closely with local Arctic communities and respecting subsistence needs.”

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‘The blob’ of abnormal conditions boosted Western U.S. ozone levels

Researchers use the ski lifts to carry equipment to sample air on the summit. A radon sensor travels to the peak of Mount Bachelor.

Dan Jaffe/University of Washington Bothell
Researchers use ski lifts to carry equipment to sample air on the summit. A radon sensor travels to the peak of Mount Bachelor.

An unusually warm patch of seawater off the West Coast in late 2014 and 2015, nicknamed “the blob,” had cascading effects up and down the coast. Its sphere of influence was centered on the marine environment but extended to weather on land.

A University of Washington Bothell study now shows that this strong offshore pattern also influenced air quality. The climate pattern increased ozone levels above Washington, Oregon, western Utah and northern California, according to a study published Feb. 15 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“Washington and Oregon was really the bullseye for the whole thing, because of the location of the winds,” said lead author Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UW Bothell. “Salt Lake City and Sacramento were on the edge of this event, but because their ozone is typically higher, those cities felt some of the more acute effects.”

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Will more snow over Antarctica offset rising seas? Don’t count on it

A freshly drilled section of the 2.1-mile deep ice core.

Mark Twickler/University of New Hampshire
A freshly drilled section of the 2.1-mile deep ice core.

Many factors related to warming will conspire to raise the planet’s oceans over coming decades—thermal expansion of the world’s oceans, melting of snow and ice worldwide, and the collapse of massive ice sheets.

But there are a few potential brakes. One was supposed to be heavier snowfall over the vast continent of Antarctica. Warmer air will hold more moisture and thus generate more snow to fall inland and slightly rebuild the glacier, according to climate model projections.

Not so fast, says a University of Washington study published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The authors, including Earth and Space SciencesT.J. Fudge, looked at evidence from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide ice core to get a first clear look at how the continent’s snowfall has varied over 31,000 years.

“Its allowed us to look at the snow accumulation back in time in much more detail than we’ve been able to do with any other deep ice core in Antarctica,” said Fudge. “We show that warmer temperatures and snowfall sometimes go together, but often they don’t.”

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Scientists recommend immediate plan to combat changes to West Coast seawater chemistry

Marine shelled organisms in Washington are already having difficulty forming their protective outer shells, and the local shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates in early life stages of some commercially important shellfish species when shell formation is critical.

University of Washington
Marine shelled organisms in Washington are already having difficulty forming their protective outer shells, and the local shellfish industry is seeing high mortality rates in early life stages of some commercially important shellfish species.

Global carbon dioxide emissions are triggering troubling changes to ocean chemistry along the West Coast that require immediate, decisive actions to combat through a coordinated regional approach, a panel of scientific experts has unanimously concluded.

A failure to adequately respond to this fundamental change in seawater chemistry, known as ocean acidification, is anticipated to have devastating ecological consequences for the West Coast in the decades to come, the 20-member West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia (OAH) Science Panel warned in a comprehensive report unveiled April 4.

“The findings of the West Coast OAH Science Panel build on those of the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, extending those findings to the entire West Coast, and incorporating consideration of the growing stressor, hypoxia. The strength of the OAH Panel’s findings lies in the coordinated, regional approach to the problem and opportunities for mitigation and adaptation that are scaled to the West Coast,” said Terrie Klinger, who participated in both panels and co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center. Klinger is also director and professor of the UW’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

Jan Newton, a UW oceanographer who co-directs the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, and Richard Feely of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle were also part of the panel.

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NOAA funds Washington Sea Grant to help communities protect their coasts

Whidbey’s Island County, seen here in a 2006 photo, is an initial partner on the project.

Washington Dept. of Ecology
Whidbey’s Island County, seen here in a 2006 photo, is an initial partner on the project.

Washington SeaGrant was recently awarded nearly $900,000 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help coastal communities protect against hazards, including tsunamis, winter storms and sea-level rise.

The three-year project will help prepare Washington’s roughly 3,100 miles of coastline and more than 45 coastal cities for current and future hazards. The award is one of six NOAA Regional Coastal Resilience Grants awarded this year.

Ian Miller, a coastal hazards specialist with Washington Sea Grant, will lead a team of state and local managers and scientists who will start this spring to fill in information gaps, conduct pilot projects, and other efforts.

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Ocean observatory comes alive

OOI Temperature Sensor Array
OOI Temperature Sensor Array

Doing research in the ocean can be a difficult, to say the least. You often need a boat or ship to get to your research site, and that research site is underwater in sometimes hundreds of feet of water. On top of that, a scientist’s ability to spend time out at sea is limited—operating ships can be expensive and there’s usually demand for that ship to come back to shore to get going on its next mission.

The vision and capabilities of the of the newly minted cabled underwater observatory off the coast of the Pacific Northwest aims to change all that. With a wired set of instruments on the seafloor, scientists and others have a continuous presence in the ocean. University of Washington researchers and their partners have permanently set their instruments atop an underwater volcano and the surrounding seafloor, measuring everything from the lifecycle of ocean organisms to the impact of underwater volcanic activity on global climate.

The cabled observatory is the culmination of years of work by the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative and UW School of Oceanography faculty and students, including professor John Delaney, originator and longtime champion of the project, and Deborah Kelley, professor and director of the American section of the observatory.

Read more at The New York Times »


The dream lab: UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories

friday harbor labsMake no mistake, the sea is changing. Warming waters are causing some organisms to become more abundant, while undermining others’ ability to fight off disease. Invasive species, overfishing and mutated diseases are all signs and sources of changes to come. Increased acidity, whether from human activities like runoff and carbon emissions or from the upwelling of deeper waters, affects the ability of clams, oysters and fish to form shells and skeletons.

There is no place like the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories for scientists to explore these and other conditions.

Not only does the area provide an incredible range of creatures to study, but UW marine experts explain that, due to higher acidity and wide fluctuations in pH and temperature, the Salish Sea is showing changes today that aren’t expected to appear in the ocean for another 100 years.

“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have known that,” says UW biologist Emily Carrington, who is studying coastal organisms and their responses to environmental fluctuations. She is in the process of making long-term measurements of weather and water conditions. “In retrospect, it’s really obvious,” she says. “To work at Friday Harbor is to look into the future of the ocean.”

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