CWU Professor Receives $360K Grant to Study Earthquakes in Chile | CWU Public Affairs

Posted: March 8, 2012

Studies of massive earthquakes half a world away could help Pacific Northwest cities prepare for major quakes.

Lisa Ely, Central Washington University professor of geological sciences, and colleagues have received $361,025 from the National Science Foundation for a three-year research study of earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile. She wrote the grant with Ben Horton, University of Pennsylvania; Robert Wesson, US Geological Survey; and Marco Cisternas, Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.

Ely’s work in Chile will provide valuable insight into earthquake zones with similar features, such as Japan and the Pacific Northwest. These areas, called subduction zone faults, form the tectonic plate boundaries that parallel the coastlines of many countries around the world. A subduction zone rupture happens when one of the plates slips under the other, causing massive and extensive damage, and triggering huge tsunamis.

“Chile is a very close corollary to what we have here,” said Ely. “This will help us understand better how subduction earthquakes happen.”

In 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake and accompanying tsunami wave struck the coastal region of south-central Chile. The damage was particularly devastating near Concepción, the country’s second largest city.

Ely just happened to have spent the previous year in Concepción studying earthquakes and tsunamis in this seismically active area. The fortuitous timing of the recent geological investigations by Ely and her colleagues in the same area prior to the 2010 events gave them the opportunity to compare in detail the quake’s effects at the same sites.

Geological evidence of earthquakes and tsunamis can aid in anticipating the timing and magnitude of future events. This natural warning system now influences building codes and planning in the United States, Canada, and Japan, particularly where the geological record demonstrates prehistoric earthquakes larger than those known from written and instrumental records.

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