Researchers probe ocean in Cascadia zone

Search for hottest, stickiest spot in fault could help prepare for 'Big One,' tsunami

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Scientists are just back from a monthlong research cruise in the Pacific Ocean off Washington, where they were trying to find the stickiest point on a section of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the huge undersea fault that breaks loose every few hundred years, generating a massive tsunami and earthquake.

Paul Johnson, a professor of geophysics at the University of Washington, was a principal investigator on the trip funded by the National Academy of Sciences. He says it will be some time before the data from deep-sea measurements of heat and gas emissions are fully analyzed, but preliminary indications are that the strongest upheaval will be farther out to sea than previously thought, he said.

That is important because the farther out to sea that upheaval, the bigger the tsunami and the greater the damage on land from flooding, but the less damage on land from earthquake.

The subduction zone runs from Cape Mendocino, Calif., to Vancouver Island, B.C. It is where the rocky plate underneath the Pacific Ocean pushes under North America. It last gave way on Jan. 26, 1700, generating a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami that washed away houses in Japan, said Brian Atwater, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle who investigates geological evidence stretching back thousands of years on subduction zone quakes.

"Paul is trying to figure out how big the tsunami can be," said Atwater, who is not part of the research team. "In deep water, the tsunami generation can be especially effective. And Paul was out there in deep water."

A study commissioned by the Oregon Legislature has estimated that more than 10,000 people could die and $32 billion in property could be damaged when the next one hits.

Scientists aboard the RV Atlantis used the remotely operated submersible Jason II to measure heat where the Continental Shelf gives way to the deep ocean, along a line from about 50 miles off Grays Harbor to about 150 miles offshore. Robotic arms on Jason II stuck heat probes from 3 feet to 9 feet into the ocean bottom and spread out a blanket to measure surface heat. They also measured gas emissions.

Working at depths up to 1.5 miles, they looked for changes that would tell them where heat is building up because the fault is locked, like the brake on a bicycle, Johnson said. Just where the stickiest points are along the 1,000-mile length of the fault are not known. Similar work has been done off Vancouver Island, but this is the first time off the U.S. The Cascadia is one of 10 subduction zones around the world being investigated.

The San Andreas Fault in California slides side-to-side, but the Cascadia Subduction Zone moves up and down. That vertical jolt, like throwing a log in the water, generates a big wave, which could send a 40-foot surge of water at the speed of a jetliner slamming into the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Scientists have done similar research off Vancouver Island, and Johnson hopes to do more off Oregon, perhaps by 2016, the soonest the RV Atlantis would be available for another cruise. Last summer, scientists did seismic research in the same area off Grays Harbor.

Because the research was financed by the National Academy of Sciences, the data will be publicly posted on the Internet in coming months for anyone to access and analyze, Johnson said.