How earthquake patterns could let us know when the ‘Really Big One’ is coming

How earthquake patterns could let us know when the ‘Really Big One’ is coming

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A map of coastal Washington state and British Columbia shows the sweep of an episodic tremor and slow slip event, or ETS, from February to April 2017. The colors denote the time of the event as shown on the color-coded time bar at the bottom. The gray circles on the color bar indicate the number of tremor events per day. (UNAVCO Graphic / Kathleen Hodgkinson)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is it the tick of Earth’s heartbeat, or a ticking time bomb? Either way, a 14-month pattern in seismic activity could serve as the start of a super-early warning system for the “Really Big One,” the massive earthquake that’s expected to hit the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next few centuries.

The seismic ticks are known as episodic tremor and slow slip (“ETS”) events, and they’ve been known about for more than a decade. They’re linked to the titanic clash between the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate and the North American plate, in a region known as the Cascadia subduction zone.

The two plates grind into each other at a rate of an inch or two per year, about 25 miles below the surface. Usually, it’s a slow grind, but every so often, there’s a sharp spike in the rate of movement. Along the Washington state coast, the spike comes roughly every 14 months. (The most recent spike occurred last May.)

In California, the cycle takes 10 months. In Oregon, it’s more like 24 months.

Based on historical and geological records, seismologists have determined that the Cascadia fault can produce catastrophic earthquakes, on the order of magnitude 9.0 or more. In 2015, worries about the potential effects of a big Cascadia quake led to an eye-opening article in The New Yorker about the Really Big One.

Anne Trehu, a geophysicist at Oregon State University, isn’t saying the Really Big One is coming anytime soon. But during a presentation at this week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she said a steadily expanding network of seismometers and strainmeter could give us advance notice.

The seismic detection network in the Pacific Northwest and California allows seismologists to map the pulls exerted by ETS events in three dimensions, day by day.

“When there’s a little pull, it increases the risk, the stress increases, and the probability for a great earthquake increases,” Trehu said. “But it increases from one very small number to what’s still a very small number.”

Trehu said the key thing to watch for is a quickening in the pattern of episodic tremors.

“Potentially changes in the pattern, changes in that periodicity, could be indicative of something interesting,” she said. “But those are going to take longer monitoring times.”

Efforts are already underway to extend the seismic monitoring network offshore through the Cascadia Initiative, a project backed by EarthScope and the National Science Foundation with participation by the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.

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