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CWU grant to look at seismic activity in Chile

September 3, 2016 GMT

Two Central Washington University geology professors have received a $267,194 grant from the National Science Foundation to study historic data on earthquakes and tsunamis in Chile.

Lisa Ely and Breanyn MacInnes’ three-year project could have ramifications for the Pacific Northwest, according to a CWU news release. Chile’s earthquake zone is similar to the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadian subduction zone, with a similar history of megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis.

“Understanding how these massive earthquakes occur, and what the accompanying tsunamis entail helps us understand what has happened — and what could possibly happen — in the Northwest,” Ely said in the release.

Based on information from the field, MacInnes will develop computer simulations of tsunamis that could result from different megathrust fault ruptures to estimate the size and location of earthquakes in the last 2,000 years.

By working backward from the evidence left in layers of sand and dirt, and in the tiny fossil shells of diatoms (a unique form of algae), investigators will try to deduce the origin and number of tsunamis in a particular area. They also hope to calculate the magnitude and characteristics of the ruptures and earthquakes.

The massive, 8.8 magnitude Chilean earthquake that occurred in 2010 will provide an excellent test case for this study, since that event was recorded and surveyed. CWU graduate student Alexandra Ruiz based her master’s thesis using the same computer modeling technique to simulate the tsunami from the 2010 earthquake. Ely said that work was helpful in developing the project.

The project also involves researchers at Rutgers University.

Ely and a Chilean colleague, Marco Cisternas, are developing a bilingual handbook on tsunami survival. Cisternas is a professor at the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.