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Research Cruise Investigates 'Lock Zone' Of Dangerous Offshore Fault

This week a research ship is retrieving dozens of seismometers that have spent the last year on the ocean floor off the Northwest coast. Earthquake scientists hope the data they're about to get will shed more light on the structure of the offshore Cascadia fault zone. That plate boundary will be the source of the Big One whenever it rips.

Ship-to-shore video shows how researchers are using a remotely guided submarine to pluck armored seismometers off the Pacific Ocean floor. Last summer, a different ship deployed these undersea instruments on the continental shelf and in deeper water. Sixty of them were scattered from Vancouver Island to northern California.

The undersea seismometers record tiny earthquakes that we can't feel on land. From that data scientists hope to extrapolate what's happening along our big offshore fault, the Cascadia Subduction Zone. We know the two crustal plates grinding against each other out there are stuck. In science-speak, they're "locked."

University of Oregon geophysics professor Doug Toomey says a key objective of this investigation is to discover how widely tension is building up to a great earthquake. "How large it might be and how damaging it might be depends to some extent on how large the lock zone is, in particular how far offshore and how far onshore it extends."

Toomey expects the first scientific papers to interpret the data to come out later this year. He leads what is called the Cascadia Initiative project. Toomey says the $40 -$50 million dollar effort is funded by National Science Foundation and includes a big chunk of federal economic stimulus money.

What's wrapping up now is the second of four planned cycles of undersea deployments and retrievals, each a year long.

On the Web:

Cascadia Initiative project - University of Oregon 
Live video from R/V Atlantis - Exploration Now

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.