U of O Scientists Help Strengthen Earthquake Warning Systems

Aug 10, 2015

A recent article in the New Yorker and the July Fourth earthquake near Springfield have generated concern for the potential of a massive Cascadia event in the Northwest. Scientists at the U of O have been working to strengthen Oregon’s early warning systems.

U of O Professor Amanda Thomas stands next to a map showing the 15 seismic sensors funded by the Oregon legislature.
Credit Karen Richards

Research says there’s a one in three chance of a magnitude 9 earthquake in the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years. Because the Cascadia subduction zone wasn’t well understood until the late 1980s, much of the Pacific Northwest isn’t ready. Hundreds of people packed a forum on earthquake preparedness on a recent night at the University of Oregon. Amanda Thomas was one of the experts on the panel. Thomas studies slow earthquakes, which happen over days or months, not seconds.

Thomas: “If I were to go to a room full of people and say 'Who here has been in a magnitude six earthquake?', almost no one would raise their hand. But it turns out, if you live in Eugene, you’ve been in a magnitude six earthquake. Actually, these things happen about once every 13 months. They’re just slow, so you don’t feel them, they don’t radiate seismic waves.”

Thomas says the quakes she studies don’t kill anyone, but they are located more directly beneath population centers. She’s working toward a better network of seismic sensors in the state. Thomas says in southwest Oregon, the stations are sparse:

Thomas: “One of the most likely magnitude 9 earthquake scenarios is that you nucleate an earthquake in southern Oregon or maybe northern California and how much warning you can give depends on how quickly you can detect the seismic waves that are coming through and if you don’t have stations for 100 km on land where that earthquake might happen, you’re missing out on these valuable seconds of warning.”

Thomas and other U of O professors reached out to legislators. State Representative Nancy Nathanson recently helped secure $670,000 for 15 earthquake sensors. In late July, Congressman Peter DeFazio introduced a federal bill to fund an early warning system. He points to several countries, including Romania and Mexico, which are vastly more prepared than the U.S.:

DeFazio: “And if we were sophisticated enough and spent enough money we could figure out systems like they have in Japan where the Max would shut down in Portland, the bridges would be closed. 'Cause they would have a little bit of warning to really save a lot of lives.”

Having buildings and infrastructure that are built to withstand a big shake would also help. In July, the Oregon legislature allocated 175 million dollars for seismic upgrades to schools. Improvements to Bandon and Roseburg High Schools are already underway.