Scripps Oceanography to Help Lead New Earthquake Research Center

The multi-institution center will study Cascadia subduction zone to improve earthquake resilience in the Pacific Northwest

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego will be part of a new, multi-institutional research center to study a subduction zone capable of producing earthquakes in excess of  magnitude 9.0 and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

The Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT), funded through a $15 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), 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 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from southern British Columbia to Northern California. It will advance earthquake research, foster community partnerships, and diversify and train the next generation geosciences workforce.  

“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 Scripps Oceanography alumnus Diego Melgar, an 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.” 

At Scripps Oceanography, participation in CRESCENT is being led by seismologist Alice Gabriel, who will serve as a senior scientist focused on modeling of earthquakes and tsunamis using supercomputing. Gabriel is also a collaborator on the Southern California Earthquake Center. She notes that while the Cascadia subduction zone is a different tectonic environment than the fault systems in Southern California, improving understanding of a different system helps scientists learn more about the fundamentals of the physics of earthquakes and improve overall preparedness. 

“This collaborative new center will improve our broad understanding of earthquakes and tsunamis,” said Gabriel. “It gives us the opportunity to put physics and data together into our earthquake modeling efforts, and into tsunami hazard assessment.” 

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.  

The new center aims to 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.  

Subduction zones in the U.S. are understudied compared to other kinds of faults, and create distinctive earthquake dynamics that still aren’t fully understood, according to Melgar. So, the lessons learned from CRESCENT’s work could also be applied to subduction zones in Alaska, the Caribbean, and around the world.   

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. At Scripps Oceanography, that could include plugging into the NSF-supported research experience for undergraduates (REU) program called the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF).  

In addition to Scripps Oceanography and the University of Oregon, ​CRESCENT includes researchers from 14 academic institutions around the United States.


CRESCENT participating institutions include:  

University of Oregon 

Central Washington University 

Oregon State University 

University of Washington 

Cal Poly Humboldt 

Portland State University 

Purdue University 

Smith College 

Stanford University 

UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography 

University of North Carolina-Wilmington 

Virginia Tech 

Washington State University 

Western Washington University 

  • Adapted from the University of Oregon 

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