Quake experts update outlook for ‘Really Big One’

1700 tsunami effect
A color-coded computer simulation from 2016 shows how researchers think tsunami waves propagated from a magnitude-9 Cascadia subduction zone earthquake in the year 1700. Scientists believe such quakes occur every 500 years or so on average. (NOAA / Pacific Tsunami Warning Center)

Earthquake experts say current building codes don’t reflect the riskiest features of the Seattle area’s geology — but the outlook for survivability looks a lot better if the Really Big One can just hold off for a few more years.

That’s the bottom line from a session focusing on Seattle’s seismic hazards, presented at ground zero today during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The session — titled “Is the Coast Toast?” — followed up on a 2015 New Yorker article that painted a grim picture of the possibilities, based on studies of the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia subduction zone.

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USGS awards $10.4M for Northwest quake alerts

PNSN installation on Mount St. Helens
Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood visible in the distance. (UW / PNSN Photo / Marc Biundo)

The U.S. Geological Survey is setting aside $10.4 million over the next two years to boost the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system in the Pacific Northwest.

About $7.3 million of the funding, which is part of a broader ShakeAlert expansion program announced today, will go to the University of Washington.

Funds will be used to upgrade the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, or PNSN, which monitors earthquake activity in Washington and Oregon.

“This investment in PNSN represents a major increase in federal support for earthquake monitoring in the Cascadia region,” UW seismologist Harold Tobin, the network’s director, said in a news release. “At the end of the two years of funding we anticipate having essentially doubled the number of seismic stations across our whole region that contribute to real-time earthquake early warning.”

Tobin said the network’s expansion “would allow for full public alerts of any potentially damaging earthquakes, across our entire region of Washington and Oregon, by the end of the two-year period.”

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How quakes could tip us off to the ‘Really Big One’

Episodic tremors
A map of coastal Washington state and British Columbia shows the sweep of an episodic tremor and slow slip event, or ETS, from February to April 2017. The colors denote the time of the event as shown on the color-coded time bar at the bottom. The gray circles on the color bar indicate the number of tremor events per day. (UNAVCO Graphic / Kathleen Hodgkinson)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is it the tick of Earth’s heartbeat, or a ticking time bomb? Either way, instruments that monitor a 14-month pattern in seismic activity could serve as an super-early warning system for the “Really Big One,” the massive earthquake that’s expected to hit the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next few centuries.

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Tweets document damage after 7.0 Alaska quake

Tsunami hazard map
The red area on this map indicates the extent of the tsunami warning about an hour and a half after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Alaska. ( / NOAA Graphic)

Buildings in downtown Anchorage were damaged and roads were ruined when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit Alaska’s biggest city today.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake occurred at 8:29 a.m. Alaska time (9:29 a.m. PT) and was centered 8 miles north of Anchorage. The main quake was followed by aftershocks in the range of magnitude 4 to 5.8.

“There is major infrastructure damage across Anchorage,” the city’s police department said in an online alert. “Many homes and buildings are damaged. Many roads and bridges are closed. Stay off the roads if you don’t need to drive. Seek a safe shelter. Check on your surroundings and loved ones.”

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Star seismologist sizes up Seattle’s ‘Really Big One’

Lucy Jones
Earthquake expert Lucy Jones says Pacific Northwest residents tend to be less motivated than Californians to prepare for a strong earthquake because the dearth of seismic shocks leads to “normalization bias” and complacency. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle

When it comes to taking earthquakes seriously, Seattle’s problem may be that the city doesn’t get enough of them.

That’s one way of putting the assessment from Lucy Jones, a pioneering seismologist from Southern California who’s been called the “Beyoncé of Earthquakes.”

She earned that title by dint of decades’ worth of research and outreach at Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey, particularly in her role as a risk reduction planner and the lead developer of the “Great ShakeOut” earthquake preparedness drill.

Since her retirement from USGS in 2016, Jones has been focusing on ramping up her own institute, the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, and writing a soon-to-be-published book titled “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us.”

This week she came to Seattle to give talks at City Hall and at the University of Washington, recapping her work on Los Angeles’ “Resilience by Design” program.

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ShakeAlert warning system gets $4.9M boost

ShakeAlert warning
The ShakeAlert earthquake warning system is designed to give schools, utilities and other facilities advance alerts about serious seismic shocks. (USGS Photoillustration)

The University of Washington and six other research institutions will benefit from $4.9 million in funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for the ShakeAlert earthquake warning system, which could eventually provide precious seconds of advance notice that a seismic shock is coming.

The grant funds a fresh set of two-year cooperative agreements with UW as well as Central Washington University, the University of Oregon, Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Nevada at Reno and the Colorado-based UNAVCO research consortium.

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Trump puts quake alert on shaky ground

ShakeAlert graphic
A simulation shows the kind of alert that would be generated by an 8.0 quake. (PNSN via YouTube)

The Trump administration wants to eliminate federal support for the West Coast’s ShakeAlert earthquake warning system, but its backers in Congress won’t let it go without a fight.

“Defunding the earthquake early warning system isn’t just irresponsible – it’s dangerous,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., told GeekWire in an emailed statement.

“This is about giving people a warning of an earthquake or a tsunami.  A few precious seconds of warning can be the difference between life and death for a child in a school on the coast or a physician doing surgery in a local hospital,” Kilmer said. “This cut to public safety is just plain wrong, so we’re going to fight for a budget that doesn’t put people at risk.”

ShakeAlert was pioneered in California, but in April the monitoring and alert system was extended to Oregon and Washington state, where seismologists say there’s the potential for a catastrophic magnitude-9 quake nicknamed the Really Big One.

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Alaska volcano erupts – and disrupts flights

Image: Pavlof eruption
Colt Snapp captured a picture of the ash plume emanating from Mount Pavlof on Sunday evening as he was flying to Anchorage from Dutch Harbor. (Credit: Colt Snapp via Twitter)

The spectacular eruption of Alaska’s Mount Pavlof had a not-so-spectacular effect on airline schedules today: Alaska Airlines said it had to cancel 41 flights to and from six cities in northern Alaska due to the massive ash cloud emanating from Pavlof.

More than 3,000 passengers were affected by today’s cancellations, Alaska Airlines said in a travel advisory. Flights to Barrow, Bethel, Fairbanks, Kotzebue, Nome and Prudhoe Bay are suspended until the airline can assess weather reports after dawn Tuesday.

Anchorage’s KTVA TV said Bering Air, PenAir and Ravn Alaska canceled flights this morning, but at least some of those airlines returned to normal schedules later in the day.

Mount Pavlof, 600 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, is one of the state’s most consistently active volcanoes. The 8,261-foot peak began erupting on Sunday afternoon, sending ash to heights in excess of 20,000 feet.

KTVA quoted public safety officer Barrett Taylor as saying more than an eighth of an inch of ash had blanketed much of the Aleutian community of Nelson Lagoon. “It was basically raining ash,” Taylor said.

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Find out where we’re likely to trigger quakes

Image: Earthquake map
This map shows the U.S. Geological Survey’s forecast for natural and human-induced earthquakes in 2016. The colors denote the chance of damage, ranging from less than 1 percent to 12 percent. The graphic for the central and eastern U.S. combines the two types of earthquakes. The map for the western U.S. assumes that all of the earthquakes occur naturally. Click on the map for a larger version. (Credit: USGS)

For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey is pinpointing the places where quakes induced by human activity as well as natural seismicity are most likely to occur this year.

The map released today dramatically raises the earthquake risk assessment for areas of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas, primarily due to seismic activity triggered by injecting wastewater deep underground.

Wastewater injection is often associated with the oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. However, the USGS says fracking fluid typically makes up less than 10 percent of the injected wastewater. Most of it is saltwater that’s brought up as a byproduct during the oil and gas production process. To avoid polluting freshwater sources, the undrinkable water is typically pumped deep underground over the course of years or decades..

Previous studies have shown a link between wastewater injection and the increased incidence of quakes in Oklahoma. Such quakes aren’t catastrophic, but they do cause damage to buildings – and that’s why they were included in the newly released assessment.

“By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S.,” Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, said in a news release.

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White House backs quake warning system

Image: Tsunami
A computer simulation shows how a tsunami wave is thought to have spread across the Pacific two and a half hours after a magnitude-9.2 earthquake that occurred in the Cascadia subduction zone in the year 1700. (Credit: NOAA / NWS / Pacific Tsunami Warning Center)

A public-private campaign to improve America’s resilience to future earthquakes, like the “Really Big One” that’s expected to hit the Pacific Northwest someday, received a multimillion-dollar boost today.

The new initiatives are aimed at minimizing the multibillion-dollar impact of large-scale seismic shocks: They range from a White House drive to upgrade federal facilities throughout the country, to a $100,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy Foundation to install seismometers throughout Washington state.

“We do need to make sure, for the next ‘Big One,’ no matter what it is … that a natural phenomenon doesn’t become a human tragedy,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who grew up in Seattle, said during today’s webcast of the White House Earthquake Resilience Summit.

White House science adviser John Holdren noted that more than 74 million Americans in 39 states are at risk from the effects of seismic shaking. However, three-quarters of the risk is concentrated on the West Coast, primarily in California, Washington and Oregon, he said.

Californians are familiar with the quake risk, thanks to temblors ranging from San Francisco’s “Big One” in 1906 to the 2014 South Napa earthquake. The Pacific Northwest risk came into the spotlight last July when The New Yorker published a scary article about the potential for a mega-quake in the Cascadia subduction zone.

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