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Office Hours With John Vidale, UW Seismologist

Published on April 23, 2016

John Vidale as a young boy and today as a UW seismologist.
Image Credit: Courtesy John Vidale and the UW Earth and Space Sciences Department

John Vidale is a professor at the University of Washington in the Earth & Space Sciences Department specializing in seismology, particularly around the Cascadia Fault Zone and while there’s been a lot of talk (read: worry and fear) about the Cascadia Subduction Zone this geologist isn’t panicking. John talks to us about the problem of long odds, the futility of speeding along the Viaduct, and the challenges of implementing earthquake warning systems.

(This is the first in a series of pieces we plan on doing to highlight UW researchers and their work regarding Seattle, cities, and the contemporary challenges of urbanism.)

Urban@UW: John, could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?

John Vidale: I am part of a team developing an early warning system to alert people along the West Coast about seismic events. We are trying to connect with a variety of individuals from communities, the City of Seattle and Washington State emergency managers, and the University to leverage everyone’s strengths, knowledge, and logistics to implement an early warning system. It’s complicated—we need excellent science, data, and monitoring systems that can inform a robust alert system. This is a challenging undertaking with many people at the table and we are making good progress.

I’d like to help enable a sensible long-term policy toward fixing the inventory of “bad” buildings in Seattle. There are a number of buildings in the city that were made with unreinforced masonry and other questionable designs that present a significant risk in a major seismic event. This is a two-pronged problem, we have to figure out best practices for assessment and fixing buildings as well as a legislative problem in which we have to develop clear rules regarding an inventory and legal process. I am working to provide the best information from my discipline of seismology to inform and catalyze changes.

Urban@UW: In thinking about Seattle, The New Yorker’s “The Really Big One” got a lot of people curious and worried about earthquakes—as a seismologist studying this region what was your take on the piece?

John Vidale: The article was well done, probably 98% strong factual information, but people tend to gravitate to what they perceive as obvious and horrible dangers. Of course we are monitoring and studying this area closely, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know—to collect all the information we seek will require decades, millions of dollars, vast computing power, and strong research groups. We can muse about dangerous scenarios, but really this boils down to logical and pragmatic approaches to living in this beautiful, dangerous geology and a lot of that boils down to money and politics.

Urban@UW: In explaining this to people what role do you see data playing?

John Vidale: Cities are great laboratories in many ways and Seattle is a great place to try to do something meaningful, accurate, and beneficial. We have a lot of information and we keep compiling more and analyzing it. Basically, the information is out there but we need to connect the right people to the right data—that’s the biggest challenge and opportunity.
A big part of this pragmatism. You know, people tell me, “When I drive on the viaduct I just floor it to get through it as fast as possible,” and while I would hate to have to ride the viaduct everyday, the reality is there is a really small chance that the few seconds you’re on the viaduct that something horrible is going to happen. We need to have an informed and pragmatic approach, one that can correctly assess rare dire consequences.

Urban@UW: Who do you work with and who would you like to work with in the University?

John Vidale: I work with a number of people in Earth & Space Sciences, College of Built Environments, College of Engineering, and the Evans School. There’s a lot of tremendous people here. A big part of this for me is figuring out where the barriers are whether it’s in science, engineering, economics, policy, law—whatever it is—and find the right people and partnerships.

Urban@UW: In thinking about that, what would you like to do next?

John Vidale: I would like to have a lunch or gathering with city officials and University members to talk about the implementation of an early warning system and, separately, to get some momentum going about a more comprehensive retrofitting system. This would also be key to start thinking about costs and benefits as well as risks so we can collectively understand them and make appropriate preparations and changes. This would be a great way to make connections and figure out, what are our barriers? The city is the target of opportunity here: this is a great place but some changes are necessary. Each city is unique in terms of its geology, logistics, and politics: these are limitations and opportunities.

Urban@UW: How do you think people should think about living in this sort of earthquake territory?

John Vidale: People are terrible with long odds. They tend to perceive the worst case as inevitable when that’s not necessarily all that likely. Or, people tend to think that they were OK last time, so they’ll be OK next time. Are there risks?—sure—but we need to accept them rationally and without fear. It is possible that a horrible event could happen anywhere so we need a rational approach that involves cities, scientists, engineers, and economists so we can take down the barriers to solutions.

Urban@UW: John, for people interested in seismology and cities what would you say they ought to put on their reading list?
John Vidale: Predicting the Unpredictable, by Susan Hough, the tale of why quake prediction has not worked (yet). Another really great book is Full-Rip 9.0 by Sandi Doughton.

John Vidale focuses on earthquakes, earth structure, and earthquake hazard monitoring and mitigation. His recent and current NSF projects include the M9 and iMUSH (imaging Magma Under St. Helens) and the Array of Arrays. John is also the Director of the Pacific NW Seismic Network. He came to the University of Washington in 2006 after spending two decades at Caltech, UC Santa Cruz, USGS, and UCLA.

Written by Andrew Prindle, Urban@UW Communications Coordinator
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