Public Release: 

UW To Help Lead $20 Million Earthquake Hazard Prevention Project

University of Washington

University of Washington researchers will play a leading role in a $20 million effort to identify and mitigate potential earthquake hazards in urban areas along the Pacific coast. The UW joins eight California universities in the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center announced today by the National Science Foundation.

Amid mounting historical evidence that the Pacific Northwest is at risk for devastating temblors, the center will research new ways to assess the earthquake resistance and retrofitting options of major structures such as bridges, buildings and highways.

"We know that in the Pacific Northwest we have the possibility of earthquakes that are very long in duration -- on the order of several minutes rather than several seconds -- and potentially very devastating," says Steve Kramer, professor of civil engineering at the UW and a member of the PEER Center's executive management and research committees. "These longer-duration earthquakes will have very specific impacts on soils and structures that we need to understand better if we hope to avoid catastrophic loss of life and property damage in a major earthquake."

The center was one of three earthquake engineering research centers nationwide to receive five-year, $10 million grants from the National Science Foundation following a competitive review process. The NSF grant for the PEER Center will be matched by $10 million from various non-federal sources, including the State of California, Pacific Gas & Electric, Washington State Department of Transportation and the UW. This funding, researchers say, will likely net a tenfold savings in building and retrofitting costs for earthquake hazard prevention.

In addition to conducting research, the center has a major educational emphasis that features fellowships targeting women and underrepresented minorities, research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and outreach programs for public schools in the area. Kramer and his colleagues also hope to improve channels for sharing information and technology with builders, engineers, bankers, insurance officials and government agencies to enhance earthquake hazard prevention strategies.

The Puget Sound region has had large, damaging earthquakes on an average of every 30 years, including most recently the magnitude-6.5 temblor centered south of Sea-Tac International Airport in 1965. In addition, historical data show that an area just off Washington's coast, known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, has produced six major earthquakes up to magnitudes of 9.0 over the past 3,400 years. These earthquakes rank among the most severe on record and would cause devastating damage in today's increasingly developed and populated Puget Sound region, researchers say.

There also is new evidence of a significant fault running through the center of downtown Seattle, according to John Stanton, professor of civil engineering at the UW and member of the PEER Center's research committee. This fault, he says, is shallow and is capable of producing earthquakes of magnitudes in the 7.0 range -- similar to the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan, that caused 6,500 deaths and $120 billion in property damages.

"This is like a loaded gun pointed right at the heart of Seattle," says Stanton. "There is tremendous pressure on the engineering community as well as on the financial, insurance and regulatory communities to better assess different levels of earthquake resistance in structures throughout the region.

"It's not enough for building codes and designs to describe structures as earthquake resistant or not; it's not that black and white. The PEER Center brings together funding and expertise to develop far more sophisticated criteria for earthquake hazard prevention. And it's well established that every dollar spent in research can save $10 or more in building and retrofitting costs."

Headquartered at the University of California-Berkely Earthquake Engineering Research Center, the PEER Center includes several of the top earthquake research programs in the country. Other member institutions include: California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California-Davis, UC-Irvine, UCLA, UC-San Diego, University of Southern California and the UW.

The UW Department of Civil Engineering recently was awarded a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to upgrade its structural research laboratory. Among other things, the grant will pay for larger hydraulic equipment on the lab's "shaking table" enabling researchers to better simulate earthquakes and monitor the results.

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For more information, contact Kramer at (206) 685-2642 and kramer@u.washington.edu; Stanton at (206) 543-6057 and stanton@u.washington.edu; or Charles Roeder, professor of civil engineering and member of the PEER Center institutional board, at (206) 543-6199 and croeder@u.washington.edu

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