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A Lesson in Rock 'n Roll

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Where were you on February 28 when the Nisqually earthquake rattled the Northwest? A group of seismologists were headed for—of all things—a celebration of Project Impact, an earthquake preparedness program. They never made it. 

“We stopped at Starbucks on the way and were getting coffee when the earthquake hit,” recalls William Steele, coordinator and director of information services for the UW Seismology Lab. “We passed up the coffee and rushed back to the lab.” 

Steele knew that the seismology lab—recognized as the primary source of information on seismic activity in the Northwest—would be flooded with phone calls, television cameras, radio interviewers, and others seeking information about the quake. He and his colleagues wanted to gather the latest data from the laboratory’s computers before the media descended. 

A Regional Network 

Much of the lab’s information about seismic activity comes from data recorded by more than 200 seismometers—highly sensitive motion sensors—located throughout the Northwest. Computers scan the data 100 times per second to detect a jump that might indicate an earthquake. The systems are automated, with earthquakes of magnitude 2.9 or greater triggering the computer to alert the laboratory’s scientists and emergency managers. 

Most seismometers in the region are analog short-period instruments, which are useful for detecting subtle ground motion but are knocked off scale in larger quakes. Fortunately the lab has been working with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and a consortium of public and private agencies to update these instruments with digital strong-motion seismometers that provide detailed information about ground motion in even the largest earthquakes. 

“The strong-motion seismometers performed beautifully,” says Steele. “This is the first big earthquake for which we had usable strong- motion information.”

About 35 strong-motion seismometers have been installed around Puget Sound. The instruments include communications hardware that transmits the information through Internet connections, allowing scientists access to real-time data. If intense shaking severs Internet connections—as it did at eight sites during the Nisqually earthquake—the seismometer saves information in its memory until someone shows up with a laptop computer to download it. 

“We didn’t have enough instruments to do what we would like to have done, but it was a good start,” says Steele. “Ideally, we would like 600 strong-motion seismometers installed in the Puget Sound region.” 

The Media Aftershock 

While many people were excited, worried, or terrified by the Nisqually quake, seismolo- gists were understandably thrilled and fascinated.“Frankly, I loved it,” admits Steele. “While the earthquake was happening I found myself assessing the shaking—the frequency and velocity of the waves. It was great.” 

When Steele arrived at the seismology lab after the quake, he found the phones ringing off the hook and the room filled with faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and their friends.

“Everybody came out of the woodwork,” he says. “The crowd included many people with seismology experience, including students who used to work in the lab and knew enough to be able to answer the phones. I assigned people to different phone stations—one pulling off phone messages and someone else responding to the most serious messages, for example.” 

One such volunteer was Rob Willis, a graduate student who had worked in the seismology lab from 1996 to 1998 and was still in close contact with lab staff. “I’d been through this drill before,” he says. “Not in an earthquake as large as this one, but in definite earthquake events.” 

Willis turned his attention to returning phone calls from media. “At first their questions were pretty general—basic geology, the role of the seismology lab,” he says. “I felt comfortable answering those sorts of questions. Later it got harder, when they wanted more in-depth information on things like the structure of plates or probable bridge damage. I didn’t have the knowledge for that, but I knew who to send them to.” 

For his part, Bill Steele found himself “placed from one camera to the next” throughout the day. “I’d finish one interview and turn around to do the next,” he recalls. “The difficulty was to try to keep up with the information flow and try to share it simultaneously with the media.” For several days Steele, Tony Qamar, professor of earth and space sciences, and USGS seismologists Craig Weaver and Tom Pratt became fixtures on local newscasts and national broadcasts such as CNN and Larry King Live. 

Somewhere in their busy schedule, they and other seismologists and geologists found time to meet nightly to coordinate field activities around the region. 

“There were so many people in the field gathering information about liquefaction and other damage, from UW and USGS researchers to Department of Natural Resources geologists to private sector engineers,” says Steele. “That first week we would get together every night so everyone could share what they had learned and we could figure out what areas still needed to be surveyed. We had up to 100 people at some of those meetings. The sense of teamwork was tremendous.” 

Steele admits that he reveled in the excitement following the earthquake. But by week two, he was exhausted both mentally and physically. 

“Those first days are easier than the follow-up,” he says. “After the cameras go home, the work really begins. One of the lessons we’ve learned is that this doesn’t settle down after a week or two weeks or even two months.” 

The Next Step 

Even now, the calls keep coming and seismology lab staff continue to respond. Some callers want information about retrofitting their homes; others are concerned that “the big one” is imminent—a rumor that quickly spread through the region. 

“We’re used to these rumors afterward,” says Steele. “Once the media is done photographing the falling bricks, they are looking for fill-in stories. They start to give air time to folks who claim to have predicted the earthquake. Then you hear predictions of the ‘big one’ coming soon. That’s when we get more calls from worried people, some so concerned they are ready to leave town. They say they heard about it in the office and their children heard about it in school. At that point, we put out a press release to explain that we cannot predict earthquakes and don’t anticipate a big follow-up earthquake.” 

UW seismologists also have been educating legislators about earthquakes and the region’s seismic needs, hoping for additional funding for seismology research—particularly more strong-motion seismometers. 

“As we install more strong-motion seismometers, we begin to see huge variations in ground response throughout the region and are able to ask why those variations exist,” explains Steele. “Without them, we could only look at damage patterns and try to surmise why things went the way they did. They make an enormous difference in our research.” 

With this unparalleled opportunity to educate the public, what central message does Steele hope has come across loud and clear?

“Most of all, I want people to understand that while there are very real risks here, there also are things they can do to make their buildings safer. We now know how to build structures that can resist even the most violent earthquake. Preparation is key. It’s not all doom and gloom.”