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Earthquake hazard model update shows threat to US communities

Earthquake hazard model update shows threat to US communities


When it comes to earthquakes in the United States, California comes to mind as the country's hotspot. But the rest of the country is not at all immune, as New York City area residents were reminded on April 5 of a 4.8 magnitude earthquake whose epicenter was near New Jersey.

A 4.8 magnitude earthquake struck New Jersey on April 5. (Image source: CNY Central.)

Even citizens of the interior of the country face a threat. Over the course of several months in the early 19th century, for example, numerous earthquakes—some of magnitude 7.5 or higher—destroyed a huge area radiating from the Mississippi River city of New Madrid, Missouri.

Earlier this year, the USGS updated a national resource used by engineers, policymakers, government agencies and others to assess the risk of damage from earthquakes across the country. The California Statewide Earthquake Center (formerly the Southern California Earthquake Center), headquartered in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, contributed significant results to the update.

USC graduate helps draft new report on earthquakes

The revised National Seismic Hazard Model, which includes a comprehensive approach for all 50 states, uses much of the methodology developed from the California model to provide insight into the seismic underpinnings of the entire western United States.

An 1854 woodcut by Henry Howe depicts an earthquake that struck New Madrid, Missouri, in the early 19th century. (Public domain.)

USC graduate student Kevin Milner helped build the new model, co-authored the USGS report, and wrote an accompanying paper providing technical details. He completed the work that went into the report while at the University of Southern California.

Milner, who recently joined the USGS, spent more than 17 years working at SCEC headquarters at USC Dornsife, where he started as a college intern while earning his bachelor's degree from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He then took a staff position at SCEC and earned his master's and doctorate degrees from USC Dornsife while working full time.

He notes that previous versions of the report separately covered the contiguous United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. “This is the first time a comprehensive update has been done for all 50 states at the same time,” he says.

In the new report, the researchers applied their methodology developed for California to more regions around the West. In California, the risk rose slightly, but the pattern hasn't changed much — mostly because the science in the state was already so advanced to begin with, says Yehuda Ben-Zion, SCEC's director. This model has already been in use for a decade in California.

I turned. “It's changed a little bit for California by improving some components, but that's not exciting,” says Ben Zion, a professor of geosciences at USC Dornsife. “It's because we know more here.”

Advanced computer resources at USC assist with modeling

There are two main components to the model: the type of earthquakes that may occur at a particular location, known as the “ground motion model”; The probability of earthquakes occurring in different locations, which is called “earthquake rupture forecast.”

Milner is developing earthquake rupture forecasts. He says the model represents the work of about 50 scientists, including geologists in the field who map faults and find the rate at which they move each year, scientists who dig trenches to look for evidence of ancient earthquakes, and those who look at the rate of seismic activity across the United States.

Creating earthquake rupture forecasts requires massive calculations, which is what USC's Center for Advanced Computing Research has been dealing with. To generate the final model, it took 38 nodes (individual computers with 20 processors each working together to process large calculations) more than two days, but Milner says he was “consistently churning out models over the course of more than a year — models and models.” Diagnostic risk calculations using large amounts of calculations.”

The information in the update will eventually be incorporated into building codes and structural designs to help create safer housing for people. It is also used by insurance companies to find out prices for different areas that may be at risk of earthquakes.

What shakes for the future?

Last year, the Southern California Earthquake Center became California's statewide earthquake center to reflect a major new proposal funded to expand the work SCEC had been doing — which now extends in the region from western Nevada to south of the Mexico border. Ben Zion says seismic faults don't respect boundaries, so the center was also modified to reflect the work he was doing.

The Southern California section of the San Andreas Fault is overdue for a major rupture. (Photo: John Wiley/Wikimedia Commons.)

Now that the report is out, there are already new avenues of research. Milner is interested in earthquakes that start on one fault and then jump to another, the kind that wreaked havoc in Turkey and Syria last year. He is also interested in building a time-based model of earthquakes, one that takes into account the amount of time that has passed since the last major event.

And in Southern California, the San Andreas Fault — which forms the boundary between the large Pacific and North American plates — has gone without a major earthquake since 1857. Researchers believe the average time between major events is less than the 167 years that have occurred so far. has elapsed, indicating that the fault was delayed by a large rupture.

Building the time dependence deeper into future models will help estimate risk more accurately, Milner says.

Ben Zion says researchers can predict earthquakes with limited success, but adds that accuracy is improving with machine learning and more data. He likens the situation to a doctor trying to predict when a person will die. Life expectancy can be known statistically in a range of years to weeks, and with more accurate tests the range can be narrowed, but the exact time of death remains unpredictable.

“We can't predict exactly when big earthquakes will happen, but they will happen,” Ben-Zion says. “We need to invest in making communities – buildings, infrastructure and residents – more resilient.”




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