Scientists are planning a major research program to understand Earth’s most dangerous hazards | Jackson School of Geosciences

A residential building in Chile after a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in 2010 Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have joined a multinational effort to better understand the tectonic hotspots (called subduction zones) that caused this and similar powerful earthquakes , tsunamis and volcanic eruptions around the world. Credit: hdur/FlickR

The University of Texas at Austin has joined leading scientists in a bold new effort to understand Earth’s largest earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The plans are detailed in a new report published on November 7 with the support of 55 universities.

SZ4D Implementation Plan 2022
The cover of the SZ4D Implementation Plan, which details how the scientific community intends to make major advances in understanding subduction zone hazards. Credit: Subduction Zones in Four Dimensions (SZ4D)

Damian Saffer, director of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) and one of the report’s many architects, said the initiative marks the beginning of a long-term, multinational effort to turn hazard prediction into reality in subduction zones, where the collision of tectonic plates increases the risk of earthquakes and other extreme seismic hazards.

“Our report [published today] is shaping the future of the fundamental science underlying earthquake, volcano and landslide hazards through a large, multi-decade, large-scale program to address these grand challenges,” he said.

Called Subduction Zones in Four Dimensions (SZ4D), the initiative seeks to install massive arrays of underwater instruments aimed directly at earthquake hotspots in Chile, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Data from the instruments will give scientists an unprecedented picture of Earth’s internal processes and help scientists create a new generation of predictive computer models.

Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions have caused catastrophic devastation throughout human history. Despite their potential to disrupt society, the science behind where and when they occur remains a mystery. The new report details research priorities that can help solve the mystery, starting with large-scale instruments at subduction zones in Chile and the U.S.

According to Emily Brodsky, professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz and chair of the SZ4D steering committee, the Chilean subduction zone is the prime target because it is the most geologically active of the three earthquake hotspots. The report recommends deploying instruments at all three sites, but most of the effort is planned for Chile, where 70 percent of the equipment will be located.

“We want to be able to translate what we’re learning in Chile to Cascadia and Alaska,” Brodsky said.

The SZ4D initiative has already begun building partnerships with Chilean scientists and international groups studying the subduction zone there.

The cutaway diagram shows the oceanic plate bending inland where it meets the continental plate.  The figure also shows volcanoes erupting inland, fed by hot magma rising from the subduction zone.
A subduction zone is created when tectonic plates come together, with one sinking into the Earth’s mantle. Slow-motion collisions create earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides. Credit: Katie Kane/Carnegie Institution for Science

In addition to the toolkits, the report calls for researchers to study the geologic background of the sites, conduct laboratory experiments, and build computational models that integrate field observations and laboratory data.

According to Thorsten Becker, a professor at UT Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, major scientific advances in understanding subduction zone hazards could bring tangible benefits to communities in affected regions. This includes possible predictions of major earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides.

“We may never know exactly when the next big earthquake or eruption will occur, but the more we learn about these systems, the closer we can get to building physics-based models that can quantify the extent to which these events are inherently predictable,” said Becker, who has led the planning of the computational modeling component of SZ4D (the Subduction Modeling Collaboratory) for the past two years.

Through the efforts of Becker, Saffer and a growing number of researchers and students at the Jackson School and its UTIG research division, UT Austin is poised to play a key role in shaping the SZ4D initiative and the future of earthquake research.

The SZ4D initiative is organized into three working groups: Landscapes and Seascapes, Fault and Earthquake Cycles, and Magmatic Eruption Engines. In addition, there are two integrative groups: Equity and Capacity Building in Geoscience and the Subduction Modeling Collaboration. The initiative includes 74 people from 55 universities and institutions. The next SZ4D community meeting will be held November 14-16 in Houston.

Additional information is available on the SZ4D website at www.sz4d.org.

For more information, contact: Anton Caputo, Jackson School of Geosciences, 210-602-2085; Constantino Panagopoulos, University of Texas Geophysics Institute, 512-574-7376.

Read the UC Santa Cruz press release announcing the report.

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