EUGENE, Ore. - September 8, 2023 — The University of Oregon will lead a new multi-institution earthquake research center, which will receive $15 million from the National Science Foundation over five years to study the Cascadia subduction zone and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
The Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT) will be the first center of its kind in the nation focused on earthquakes at subduction zones, where one tectonic plate slides beneath another.
The center will unite scientists studying the possible impacts of a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, an offshore tectonic plate boundary that stretches more than 1000 kilometers from southern British Columbia to northern California. It will advance earthquake research, foster community partnerships, and diversify and train the next generation geosciences work force.
“The main goal of the center is to bring together the large group of geoscientists working in Cascadia to march together to the beat of a singular drum,” said Diego Melgar, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon and the director of the new center. “The center organizes us, focuses collaboration, and identifies key priorities, rather than these institutions competing.”
CRESCENT includes researchers from 16 institutions around the United States. University of Oregon earth scientists Valerie Sahakian and Amanda Thomas are University of Oregon lead investigators on the center alongside Melgar. The center also has co-investigators in its leadership from Oregon State University, Central Washington University, and the University of Washington. All participating institutions are listed below.
The Cascadia subduction zone has a long history of spurring large earthquakes, but scientists have only started to realize its power within the last few decades. Research shows that the fault is capable of producing an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 or greater—and communities along the U.S. West Coast are ill-prepared for a quake this powerful.
Such an event would set off a cascade of deadly natural hazards in the Cascadia region, from tsunamis to landslides. It could cause buildings and bridges to collapse, disrupt power and gas lines, and leave water supplies inaccessible for months.
CRESCENT’S work can help mitigate that damage. Scientists in the center will use the latest technology—including high performance computing and artificial intelligence—to understand the complex dynamics of a major subduction zone earthquake. They’ll gather data and develop tools to better forecast specific local and regional impacts from a quake. That knowledge will help communities to better prepare, by improving infrastructure and nailing down more informed emergency plans.
“Modeling the shaking from California to Canada is a gigantic endeavor,” Sahakian said. “The center enables us to make bigger strides in models, products, and lines of research, to work with engineers to create better building codes and actionable societal outcomes.”
Subduction zones in the US are understudied compared to other kinds of faults, and create distinctive earthquake dynamics that still aren’t fully understood, Melgar said. So, the lessons learned from CRESCENT’s work could also be applied to subduction zones in Alaska, the Caribbean, and around the world.
Community collaboration will be a major part of the center’s work. The CRESCENT team will work with communities impacted by hazards, regularly soliciting their input to guide research priorities. And they’ll build connections with public agencies, tribal groups, and private industry, so that scientific advances from the center will get translated into community action and policy.
The center will also work to increase diversity in geosciences and train the next generation of geoscientists in the latest technologies. For example, it will engage with minority-serving and tribal high schools to raise interest in and create pathways to geoscience careers, and provide fieldwork stipends and year-round paid research assistantships to support undergraduate students.
“The center will conduct research that is directly relevant to earthquake and tsunami hazards but too ambitious for any one scientist to take on individually,” said Thomas, the Chief Technical Officer for CRESCENT. “Our goal is to create community-endorsed research products that are immediately relevant for science and hazard estimates.”
Building resiliency in the region to face off “The Big One” is a much greater task than any institution can undertake on its own, Melgar said. Through the collaboration, community engagement, and scientific advances that CRESCENT enables, the Cascadia region’s shaky foundations will be strengthened.
CRESCENT participating institutions include:
University of Oregon
Central Washington University
Oregon State University
University of Washington
Cal Poly Humboldt
Cedar Lake Research Group
Portland State University
UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of North Carolina-Wilmington
Washington State University
Western Washington University
- Kelley Christensen and Laurel Hamers, University Communications
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The College of Arts and Sciences supports the UO’s mission and shapes its identity as a comprehensive research university. With disciplines in humanities and social and natural sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences serves approximately two-thirds of all UO students. The College of Arts and Sciences faculty includes some of the world’s most accomplished researchers, and the more than $75 million in sponsored research activity of the faculty underpins the UO’s status as a Carnegie Research I institution and its membership in the Association of American Universities.
Associate Professor of Earth Sciences
University of Oregon
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