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Major Earthquakes In Pacific Northwest and Himalayas Predict Stanford Scientists

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Research by Stanford scientists focuses on geologic features and activity in the Himalayas and Pacific Northwest that could mean those areas are primed for major earthquakes.

Stanford geophysicists are well represented at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week in San Francisco. Included among the many presentations will be several studies that relate to predicting ­– and preparing for – major earthquakes in the Himalaya Mountains and the Pacific Northwest.

The AGU Fall Meeting is the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 20,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders. This 45thannual fall meeting is taking place through Dec. 7 at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

The Main Himalayan Thrust has historically been responsible for a magnitude 8 to 9 earthquake every several hundred years.  
Illustration: Warren Caldwell

A big one in the Himalayas

The Himalayan range was formed, and remains currently active, due to the collision of the Indian and Asian continental plates. Scientists have known for some time that India is subducting under Asia, and have recently begun studying the complexity of this volatile collision zone in greater detail, particularly the fault that separates the two plates, the Main Himalayan Thrust (MHT).

Previous observations had indicated a relatively uniform fault plane that dipped a few degrees to the north. To produce a clearer picture of the fault, Warren Caldwell, a geophysics doctoral student at Stanford, has analyzed seismic data from 20 seismometers deployed for two years across the Himalayas by colleagues at the National Geophysical Research Institute of India.

The data imaged a thrust dipping a gentle two to four degrees northward, as has been previously inferred, but also revealed a segment of the thrust that dips more steeply (15 degrees downward) for 20 kilometers. Such a ramp has been postulated to be a nucleation point for massive earthquakes in the Himalaya.

Although Caldwell emphasized that his research focuses on imaging the fault, not on predicting earthquakes, he noted that the MHT has historically been responsible for a magnitude 8 to 9 earthquake every several hundred years.

“What we’re observing doesn’t bear on where we are in the earthquake cycle, but it has implications in predicting earthquake magnitude,” Caldwell said. “From our imaging, the ramp location is a bit farther north than has been previously observed, which would create a larger rupture width and a larger magnitude earthquake.”

Caldwell will present a poster detailing the research on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 1:40 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Moscone South, Halls A-C.

Caldwell’s adviser, geophysics Professor Simon Klemperer, added that recent detections of magma and water around the MHT indicate which segments of the thrust will rupture during an earthquake.

“We think that the big thrust vault will probably rupture southward to the Earth’s surface, but we don’t expect significant rupture north of there,” Klemperer said. The findings are important for creating risk assessments and disaster plans for the heavily populated cities in the region.

Klemperer spoke about the evolution of geophysical studies of the Himalayas today (Dec. 3) from 1:40 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. in Moscone South.

Measuring small tremors in the Pacific Northwest

The Cascadia subduction zone, which stretches from northern California to Vancouver Island, has not experienced a major seismic event since it ruptured in 1700, an 8.7–9.2 magnitude earthquake that shook the region and created a tsunami that reached Japan. And while many geophysicists believe the fault is due for a similar scale event, the relative lack of any earthquake data in the Pacific Northwest makes it difficult to predict how ground motion from a future event would propagate in the Cascadia area, which runs through Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.

Stanford postdoctoral scholar Annemarie Baltay will present research on how measurements of small seismic tremors in the region can be utilized to determine how ground motion from larger events might behave. Baltay’s research involves measuring low amplitude tectonic tremor that occurs 30 kilometers below Earth’s surface, at the intersections of tectonic plates, roughly over the course of a month each year.

By analyzing how the tremor signal decays along and away from the Cascadia subduction zone, Baltay can calculate how ground motion activity from a larger earthquake will dissipate. An important application of the work will be to help inform new construction how best to mitigate damage should a large earthquake strike.

“We can’t predict when an earthquake will occur, but we can try to be very prepared for them,” Baltay said. “Looking at these episodic tremor events can help us constrain what the ground motion might be like in a certain place during an earthquake.”

Though Baltay has focused on the Cascadia subduction zone, she said that the technique could be applied in areas of high earthquake risk around the world, such as Alaska and Japan.

Baltay will present a poster presentation of the research on Wednesday (Dec. 5) from 1:40 p.m. to 5:40 p.m in Moscone South, Halls A-C.

Cascadia quake simulations

The slow slip and tremor events in Cascadia are also being studied by Stanford geophysics Professor Paul Segall, although in an entirely different manner. Segall’s group uses computational models of the region to determine whether the cumulative effects of many small events can trigger a major earthquake.

“You have these small events every 15 months or so, and a magnitude 9 earthquake every 500 years. We need to known whether you want to raise an alert every time one of these small events happens,” Segall said. “We’re doing sophisticated numerical calculations to simulate these slow events and see whether they do relate to big earthquakes over time. What our calculations have shown is that ultimately these slow events do evolve into the ultimate fast event, and it does this on a pretty short time scale.”

Unfortunately, so far Segall’s group has not seen any obvious differences in the numerical simulations between the average slow slip event and those that directly precede a big earthquake. The work is still young, and Segall noted that the model needs refinement to better match actual observations and to possibly identify the signature of the event that triggers a large earthquake.

“We’re not so confident in our model that public policy should be based on the output of our calculations, but we’re working in that direction,” Segall said.

One thing that makes Segall’s work difficult is a lack of data from actual earthquakes in the Cascadia region. Earlier this year, however, earthquakes in Mexico and Costa Rica occurred in areas that experience slow slip events similar to those in Cascadia. Segall plans to speak with geophysicists who have studied the lead-up to those earthquakes to compare the data to his simulations.


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    Total 6 comments
    • TruthHurts

      it just didnt feel safe in portland oregon, to me. i had to move.

      • TheJeffness

        I live in Portland and I worry about a massive quake everyday. You look at the last 8 years, there has been a major 9.0ish quake in every corner of the ring of fire, except for the northeast corrner which is the pacific northwest. I think many of the wood houses and newer building will be fine in Seattle, portland, vancouver…but I worry about many of the old building that havnt been updated to be quake proof. They only discovered the true danger of this fault in the 1980s and have been sluggish at updating buildings. I pray the quake strikes in the middle of the night, when many of these old building are unoccupied….then I think the city casualties will be low. The coast though is a different story….that will be destroyed. I really wonder about vancouver since its on the ocean…I know there are some barrier islands kind of blocking the open ocean, but its not nearly as secured as Seattle is in Puget sound….I wonder if the massive waves will hit vancouver full force

        • Mayhem

          Helloo from New Zealand, TheJeffness, the tiny slither of land along the very edge of the Pacific Rim of Fire.

          I not worried. :grin:

        • Vallarta Mark

          Vancouver and Victoria, where I used to live until this year, will likely both suffer extensive damage from any really large quake in the area; but your concern for a tsunami in Vancouver may be overdone, in that it is fronted by Vancouver Island–which is a major piece of real estate–and the southern part of that island, which is the site of Victoria, is protected by the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. But you are right about the small towns on the coast.

          Now if we get a major tsunami here in the Puerto Vallarta region of Mexico–or if I live long enough for the Greenland Icecap to melt–then I am done for sure.

    • Anonymous

      Hahaha, Stanford Scientists work for the British Tavistock group in mind control and controllled oppostion science. This means they intend to haarp the heck out of the northwest…. .now why? What is going on up their that they want. POPULATION REDUCTION since that area has grown tremendously over the past few decades and major resistance exists up there as well. Just thought I would point out about the Stanford Scientists since we did a whole blog on how sold out they are.

      They hired Rumsfeld for cryin out loud, a real academic, hahahaa, He works for the Hoover institute and that alone screams volumes. STanford created the Hoover Instittue for alternative war strategies. Nice, huh?

      • Mayhem

        And so they might, Anonymous, but the guy in the field might have no idea. He just can’t help wondering why the Earth moves. He’s old enough to know it’s not Sex that causes it.

        His observations are some how slanted? :neutral: Perhaps but you Sir are trying to compromise him by association and I’m going to presume you don’t know him from the back of your hand. :razz:

        You might think you are out-ing something important here. I think you are trying to distract. What say you :?:

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