Think Out Loud

University of Oregon leads collaboration on earthquake research

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Sept. 20, 2023 12:04 a.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 20

The University of Oregon is leading a collaborative effort to study earthquakes and conduct research focused on the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Participating institutions include the University of Washington, Stanford University and Virginia Tech. We hear more about the new Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center from Diego Melgar, an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon and a director of the center.


Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the first of its kind effort focused on unique dangers posed by the Cascadia Subduction Zone. It has three big goals: to enable better collaboration among earthquake scientists, to diversify that scientific workforce, and to help Northwest communities prepare for The Big One. It’s called the Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center or CRESCENT. It’s a new federally funded scientific collaborative led by the University of Oregon. Diego Melgar is an associate professor of earth sciences at the University and a director of the Center, and he joins us now. It’s great to have you on Think Out Loud.

Diego Melgar: Hi, great to be here, Dave.

Miller: How did this collaboration come together?

Melgar: Well, through a realization mostly by earth scientists and earthquake scientists here in the region that there were many of us, and that the problems here are looming for earthquakes are large, and that we really needed to get organized.

Miller You put out a kind of celebratory tweet two weeks ago to say that this new program was funded. Had there been a question about that?

Melgar: Yes. So every single federally funded program is competitive through a grants process. We don’t know who else submitted a grant necessarily. But it wasn’t a sure thing.

Miller: Your team has talked about creating an earthquake culture. What does that mean?

Melgar: When we talk about an earthquake culture, really what we mean is how we conceive of our relationship with earthquakes. We can’t avoid them. We have to learn to live with them. And the way we can conceptualize that relationship here in the Pacific Northwest is maybe a little bit different than down in California where they have much more frequent earthquakes, and frankly they’re probably better prepared. So we’re hoping to contribute the scientific foundation to that earthquake culture.

Miller: The question of frequency is such an important one. How do you create a culture of earthquake awareness, leading to readiness on the individual level, when there are not frequent moderate earthquakes, but instead enormous ones every say 300 years or so?

Melgar: It’s challenging for sure, Dave. You’ve put your finger on the main problem, the main difference between us and California. California also has big earthquakes, has more frequent earthquakes. But we have way bigger ones, and they’re also more infrequent. So, yes, it’s a problem.

We hope to do so partly by being in people’s minds, being present in communities, and also by engaging a new generation of earth scientists. There’s so much to do while we wait around for the next big one. Earth science research is really an exciting thing. And so partly we hope to get that new generation of undergraduate students interested in this field and engaged and excited, and then they can too contribute to creating that earthquake culture.

Miller: Well, you’re touching on what I think would fall into the category of diversifying the geoscience workforce, which I noted briefly in my intro is one of the goals of this collaborative. How do you plan to do that?

Melgar: Yes, that is one of our main objectives in addition to the scientific aspect and to the community collaborations aspect. We have very targeted activities aimed at getting folks from minoritized backgrounds, for example, from tribal high schools, into careers in geosciences, and also of being very deliberate about making sure that we facilitate access for undergraduates also from minoritized backgrounds into these exciting careers.

I’m a little ashamed to say that the earth sciences have a really terrible track record with this. [Of] all the physical sciences, the statistics don’t lie and point to the fact that we are the least diverse field. That is well studied by the American Geosciences Institute and by other organizations. We’re worse than physics, computer science, math, engineering, and so on. It’s a pressing challenge, Dave, because the earthquakes are affecting communities that are by their very definition diverse. But the researchers that are carrying out that work are not necessarily. So that’s a real challenge that we’re hoping to address.

Miller: So often in order to address a challenge you have to diagnose it. Do you have a sense for why that is?

Melgar: That’s a complex answer. Partly, in the earth sciences, it’s because we’re not always on the top of people’s minds. Thinking at the high school level, for example, we’re not present in that curriculum necessarily. So students frequently find us late in their academic careers. They start in physics or chemistry or biology, somewhere else, and only through an accidental contact with a geology class, for example, do they realize that those things that get them excited that exist in the earth sciences and that they can have a real impact, for example, by contributing to research on hazards. Research has also shown that students are really motivated by altruism, by wanting to help others. So that’s part of the problem for us in earth sciences is it takes a long while for people to figure out that this is a fruitful career path.

Miller: I want to go back to some of the basic science here. It’s actually been a little while since we’ve talked on this show about the Cascadia Subduction Zone event, The Big One. Can you first just remind us of the timing here, the historical cycle for the really big earthquakes connected to the one plate going on the other, and also where we are now in the current timeline?

Melgar: Yes. So we think that on average big earthquakes happen here in what we call the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which as you know spans from Northern California through Oregon, Washington and into British Columbia, roughly every 300-500 years. And the reason we know that is itself very beautiful and perhaps we can talk about it some other time. But we know that the last one happened on January 26th of the year 1700. So that places us 323 years since the last one, which is why sometimes people say that we’re due. The reality of it is that we don’t know, it could be many decades before the next big one. But the fact that it’s been 323 years, definitely should make us work with a little bit more urgency than it otherwise would.

Miller: Can you put into percentage numbers the likelihood of The Big One happening in the next few decades?


Melgar: That’s an extremely difficult question, and it’s exactly the kind of science that we’re hoping to address. Putting hard numbers like that in terms of likelihoods of an earthquake happening in the next 10 years, 20 years, 50 or 100 years, involves learning a lot of things that we don’t yet necessarily know about the Cascadia Subduction Zone. So it’s exactly the kind of research that the center will facilitate by bringing 40, 50, 60 scientists together to work on that so that we can give our agencies, our community members more precise answers like that so that they know how to prepare.

Miller: You noted that the word you use to describe how we know about this, about the last time it happened, for example, was “beautiful.” What do you mean?

Melgar: Well, earth science is beautiful. We’re frequently looking for clues in the landscape, evidence in the rocks. And knowing how to read that is a fundamental sense of awe for those of us that get into the earth sciences. And so it’s beautiful because the landscape and the earth record history much the way that a person would by painting or writing it down. You just have to learn how to read that writing or see that painting. And once you do all of a sudden all these things glare out at you, and you’re right there thinking “my God, something really big has happened here.”

Then of course, we use really nice and awesome science like carbon-14 dating and things like that to figure out when things happened. And we can turn that painting into also a very precise history of what has happened in the past.

Miller: How would you assess our region-wide readiness right now? What would happen if The Big One were to hit today?

Melgar: Well, we’re better off than we used to be, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be, is how I would characterize it. And that’s not because we’re not working. Everybody knows that this is a pressing issue and things are happening all the time at all levels to try to improve our earthquake preparedness.

But I want your listeners to remember that we didn’t really realize how big of a problem this was until probably around the mid 90s, when this really took hold in people’s consciousness. So we haven’t been working on it for that long compared to, for example, California, where for the last 150 years, they’ve been preparing their building codes and so on. So we’re still vulnerable for sure. There’s gonna be strong shaking, there might be big tsunamis at the coast, and we’re not necessarily ready enough in terms of our preparation for this.

Miller: We’ve talked for years about the enormous number of roads and bridges and schools and libraries and firehouses and hospitals and fossil fuel infrastructure and on and on that are likely to fall or to fail in The Big One. And the sense I’ve gotten in, in all those conversations is that the big challenge isn’t a lack of scientific knowledge, it’s a lack of the hundreds of billions of dollars or more that it would cost to retrofit all of that infrastructure, reinforce unreinforced masonry, for one particular kind of building example. I’m wondering if you think I’ve gotten that wrong?

Melgar: No, I don’t think you’ve gotten that wrong. The science still needs to advance further, and we can talk about that and that’s why we’re here as a center. For example, when we do get around to retrofitting and to rebuilding our bridges, engineers need to know what kind of shaking to build the bridge for, how long is it gonna shake and how hard? And right now those answers are still uncertain, but they’re the kind of answers that we could provide.

But you’re absolutely right that the science can be the foundation for how decisions are made. But the decisions still lie in the public politic and economic sphere as well. So we also need a lot of advance in that regard. And that’s also part of our earthquake culture. Do we have the motivation to actually get these kinds of things done, and do that kind of hard work?

Miller: You were starting to talk about this when you mentioned the building codes and what kind of shaking engineers need to be thinking about. It makes me wonder what you see as the most urgent scientific questions, the aspects of the Cascadia Subduction Zone that we actually don’t fully understand right now. What, to you, are the most urgent questions?

Melgar: There’s a few, but I’ll tell you about one that for me personally, as a researcher, no longer as a director or anything, that I’m really interested in. And it has to do with where is the fault really stuck? We would call that locking or coupling. And that’s a really cool question because it requires that we go and measure things offshore, that we deploy sensors on the seafloor to measure what the fault is doing and so on. And it’s a really interesting and technically difficult question. But it’s also really important because depending on where it’s coupled or where it’s locked, the tsunamis can look really different. That can be the difference between a 5ft tsunami and a 30ft tsunami. So it seems like something really important that we ought to figure out quite quickly. That’s one example of the kinds of things that the center can facilitate.

Miller: Is the location of where the plates are most stuck the same thing as where the epicenter of the eventual quake is going to be? Or are those not coupled in that way?

Melgar: You’re exactly getting to the kinds of things, Dave, that we are very interested in. Just because the plate is really locked there, we still don’t necessarily know whether that foretells that that’s where the next big earthquake is going to happen or where it’s going to start. But that’s also the kind of thing we’re interested in tackling. We’re using a lot of advanced computational modeling, machine learning and AI and these kinds of things, to run as many models and as advanced as we can to glean some wisdom about problems like that.

Miller: This is something else that was noted in the press release. What role are advanced computing models going to play in your work?

Melgar: They’re absolutely fundamental. Large earthquakes everywhere in the world are thankfully very infrequent, but that makes them really hard to study, because there haven’t been that many since we have had really advanced instrumentation. So we rely on computer simulation extensively to try to understand what is possible to happen during these really, really big events.

Miller: What’s the plan for how to actually share what you’ll be learning with policymakers or with the general public? This gets back to the culture question we were talking about earlier. How do you make it so that the knowledge gets to people who can actually do something with it?

Melgar: I’m really glad you asked that question. I’m very loath of the sort of scientist in the ivory tower type of model, where wisdom is raining down from “up there.” The way we’ve built CRESCENT is to have state agencies, community interests and things like that involved from day one. So all our science meetings involve our state geological surveys, FEMA, the US Geological Survey, and so on. And these agencies that need to take the science and put it to good use. So we’re hoping to build a model of collaboration that is more horizontal than what has happened in the past where we’re constantly talking to our community members. And also they get to tell us “hey, this is the science that would be most useful to me.” And then the center can kind of adapt and say, “OK, maybe we should focus on that particular scientific question that is really of interest to our coastal communities,” for example. We’re hoping to establish that kind of two directional communication.

Miller: How do you think that the necessary focus on climate change, with a kind of crescendo in recent years - and I include media in this as well - has affected the extent to which the general public thinks about, and I guess prepares for this earthquake?

Melgar: That’s a difficult question. I’m not sure that I see necessarily a connection between how folks perceive climate change and the urgency and hazards that are all around us as a result of climate change, and this earthquake. What I can tell you is that I do see a lot of doom and gloom kinds of feelings amongst people when we think about wildfires and landslides and so on. And, and earthquakes are no different. But what I want to communicate to people is that even if we have those really scary feelings, this kind of center is really important because it will let us know more. And the more we know, then the better we can prepare. And then hopelessness is a little bit harder, and maybe we feel more empowered.

Miller: Diego Melgar, thanks very much for joining us.

Melgar: Of course. Pleasure to be here, Dave.

Miller: Diego Melgar is an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon and one of the directors of this new center, which is a collaborative with other universities on the west coast and a further way to focus on research and action when it comes to the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

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