Western Washington University partnering in new $15M NSF-funded earthquake research center

The multi-institution center will advance understanding of the Cascadia subduction zone and improve earthquake resiliency in the Pacific Northwest

Bellingham​, WA — Two Western Washington University geologists are participating scientists in a new multi-institution earthquake research center, which will receive $15 million from the National Science Foundation over five years to study the Cascadia subduction zone and bolster earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

The Cascadia Region Earthquake Science Center (CRESCENT) will be the first center of its kind in the nation focused on earthquakes at subduction zones, where one tectonic plate slides beneath another.  

The center will unite scientists studying the possible impacts of a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, an offshore tectonic plate boundary that stretches more than 1000 kilometers from southern British Columbia to northern California. It will advance earthquake research, foster community partnerships, and diversify and train the next generation geosciences work force.  

“The main goal of the center is to bring together the large group of geoscientists working in Cascadia to march together to the beat of a singular drum,” said Diego Melgar, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon and the director of the new center. “The center organizes us, focuses collaboration, and identifies key priorities, rather than these institutions competing.” 

CRESCENT includes researchers from 14 institutions around the United States, including Western’s Colin Amos and Emily Roland, as well as researchers from the University of Washington and Central Washington University. University of Oregon earth scientists Valerie Sahakian and Amanda Thomas are lead investigators on the center alongside Melgar. 

In focus: the Cascadia subduction zone

The Cascadia subduction zone has a long history of spurring large earthquakes, but scientists have only started to realize its power within the last few decades. Research shows that the fault could produce an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 or greater—and communities along the U.S. West Coast are ill-prepared for a quake this powerful.  

Such an event would set off a cascade of deadly natural hazards in the Cascadia region, from tsunamis to landslides. It could cause buildings and bridges to collapse, disrupt power and gas lines, and leave water supplies inaccessible for months.  

CRESCENT’S work can help mitigate that damage. Scientists in the center will use the latest technology—including high performance computing and artificial intelligence—to understand the complex dynamics of a major subduction zone earthquake. They’ll gather data and develop tools to better forecast specific local and regional impacts from a quake. That knowledge will help communities to better prepare, by improving infrastructure and nailing down more informed emergency plans.  

“Modeling the shaking from California to Canada is a gigantic endeavor,” Sahakian said. “The center enables us to make bigger strides in models, products, and lines of research, to work with engineers to create better building codes and actionable societal outcomes.”  

Subduction zones in the US are understudied compared to other kinds of faults, and create distinctive earthquake dynamics that still aren’t fully understood, Melgar said. So, the lessons learned from CRESCENT’s work could also be applied to subduction zones in Alaska, the Caribbean, and around the world.   

Community collaboration central to CRESCENT's work

The CRESCENT team will work with communities impacted by hazards, regularly soliciting their input to guide research priorities. And they’ll build connections with public agencies, tribal groups, and private industry, so that scientific advances from the center will get translated into community action and policy.  

The center will also work to increase diversity in geosciences and train the next generation of geoscientists in the latest technologies. For example, it will engage with minority-serving and tribal high schools to raise interest in and create pathways to geoscience careers, and provide fieldwork stipends and year-round paid research assistantships to support undergraduate students. 

Amos and Roland will be part of the CRESCENT team tasked with developing a 3-D model of the subduction zone and the regional fault systems that are impacted by its activity. 

"Besides finding new data and building new imagery as part of the bigger 3-D model, an important part of this project is about consolidating in one place all the existing fault maps and data from participating researchers and governmental agencies. Then we need to begin to put all those pieces together," said Roland. “It’s a pretty massive undertaking, but also very exciting — and the more work we can do to build this model, the better our state and federal agencies can respond to the region’s future earthquakes."

Building resiliency in the region to face off “The Big One” is a much greater task than any institution can undertake on its own, Melgar said. Through the collaboration, community engagement, and scientific advances that CRESCENT enables, the Cascadia region’s shaky foundations will be strengthened.

CRESCENT participating institutions

  • University of Oregon 
  • Central Washington University 
  • Oregon State University 
  • University of Washington 
  • Cal Poly Humboldt 
  • Portland State University 
  • Purdue University 
  • Smith College 
  • Stanford University 
  • UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography 
  • University of North Carolina-Wilmington 
  • Virginia Tech 
  • Washington State University 
  • Western Washington University 


Media contact

Jonathan Higgins, Director of WWU Communications, jonathan.higgins@wwu.edu