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Scientists have mapped the Cascadia Fault and found the most dangerous part

Scientists have mapped the Cascadia Fault and found the most dangerous part
Scientists have mapped the Cascadia Fault and found the most dangerous part


Hidden off the western shore of the United States, beneath the Pacific Ocean, is the Cascadia Subduction Zone. This fault is capable of generating earthquakes larger than magnitude 8 that can be felt hundreds of miles away, and a recent study identified the most dangerous section along its 700-mile stretch.

The results will help scientists assess the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis in this region, including one state that is particularly at risk: Washington.

“This was a subduction zone that has not been adequately studied with the types of tools we have now,” geophysicist Susan Carbutt, the Bruce Hazen Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University, told Business Insider.

Armed with cutting-edge technology that can probe deep beneath the ocean floor and create images, Carbot and her team have produced the first comprehensive survey of the complex underground Cascadia Formation. They published their work today in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

Researchers discovered that Cascadia is divided into at least four parts, something previous studies have suggested but never confirmed, Carbot said.

“The image before our study was a smooth surface with no obvious relationship to this subdivision,” Carbot said. “But this smooth surface was based on very sparse data. In some places, there was no data.”

This new image provides a more accurate view of Cascadia's complexity, and of the danger it poses to the West Coast of the United States.

How the Cascadia Subduction Zone Causes Earthquakes In the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the Juan de Fuca plate is slowly subducting beneath North America. When these two tectonic plates move against each other, it can cause a massive earthquake. USGS/Wikimedia Commons

Cascadia is essentially the boundary between two tectonic plates: the massive North American continent, and the smaller Juan de Fuca plate.

The Juan de Fuca plate is gradually sliding (or subducting) eastward beneath the North American plate, creating a major rift: a place where tectonic plates move against each other in a dangerous way.

Carbot explained that the pressure pushing the Juan de Fuca plate under North America is continuous, but the movement of the plate is not. Sometimes, he stumbles.

When trapped in this way, the plates can only absorb pressure for so long before they eventually burst, causing an earthquake, she said.

This is what scientists believe happened about 300 years ago when the area off the coast exploded and the resulting earthquake formed a massive tsunami that struck the coast of Japan.

While Cascadia has not produced a major earthquake since 1700, it is only a matter of time.

Scientists can't predict earthquakes, but they can get a better idea of ​​the risks by understanding the complex structure of faults deep in the Earth.

Carbot and her team have moved the needle significantly on that front.

Focus on Risk A building partially collapsed in Gaziantep, Turkey, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the city. The Cascadia subduction zone can produce larger, more dangerous earthquakes. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Carbot and her team found a lot of variation in the structure of the megathrust, which likely means the hazard is different at different locations along the fault, said Janet Watt, a research geophysicist at the USGS in Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study.

Speaking about Carbot's findings, Watt told BI: “It's not a one-size-fits-all answer, but it gives us an appreciation for that complexity.”

Additionally, understanding that Cascadia is divided into parts is key to assessing earthquake risk, Watt said. This is because this fragmentation means that a large payment can explode into parts, rather than all at once. This could affect the size of future earthquakes, because shorter faults lead to smaller earthquakes.

Furthermore, the unique characteristics of each of these sectors mean that each one poses a different level of risk. Another key finding from Carbot's study is that one part of Cascadia is more likely to produce a major earthquake than other parts.

This particularly dangerous section extends along the Washington coast, extending from the northern Oregon border to southern British Columbia. It is flatter and smoother than other parts, which means it can trigger the largest earthquakes, Carbot told BI in an email.

Additionally, this segment will likely extend further into the United States than other segments, which is bad news for Washington state. If that section ruptures, Washington's coastal communities could experience more severe tremors, although the quake would extend far beyond the state's borders, Carbut wrote.

Knowing this could help this country prepare for the worst-case scenario. “I think this is an example of a study that will lead to future work in terms of building resilience along the coast,” Watt said. “It will be interesting to see where the science takes us.”

Carbot's research appears in the context of several other studies that are currently working to shed more light on our picture of Cascadia.

“This is a special study of a larger community effort that is being undertaken [understand] system, and then communicating what that means to communities on the coast and inland, and how we can turn science into action,” Watt said.




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