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  • The weather is getting weirder at our poles
    Wednesday, May 26, 2021
    Using ground observations of precipitation in the Antarctic, as well as thunderstorm and lightning data in the Arctic (from 'Lighting in the Arctic, by Prof. Holzworth and his ESS colleagues ( ), the Advanced Science News article discusses the great changes in local climates near the poles. Read More
  • Earthquake early warnings launch in Washington, completing West Coast-wide ShakeAlert system
    Monday, May 3, 2021

    When the Big One hits, the first thing Washington residents notice may not be the ground shaking, but their phone issuing a warning. The U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Washington-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and the Washington Emergency Management Division on Tuesday, May 4, will activate the system that sends earthquake early warnings throughout Washington state. This completes the tri-state rollout of ShakeAlert, an automated system that gives people living in Washington, Oregon and California advance warning of incoming earthquakes.

    "For the first time, advance warning of imminent earthquake shaking will be a reality in our region. Even just seconds, up to a minute of warning is enough to prepare yourself and take cover -- actions that may spare you from injury or even save your life," said Harold Tobin, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the PNSN, which operates the seismic monitoring in Washington and Oregon.

    PNSN seismic sensor work

    A team from the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network installs a new solar panel array at a seismic monitoring site in Enumclaw, Washington, on April 20, 2021. The seismometer, one of hundreds that provide data for ShakeAlert, is in the hole in the foreground. A trench brings cables to the newly installed solar panels, on the right, that power the system, and an aluminum box containing electronics that digitize and transmit the seismic data.

    Solar panel array

    An upgraded Pacific Northwest Seismic Network monitoring station in Enumclaw, Washington, on April 20, 2021. The newly installed solar panels provide power for the system that detects the first signs of an earthquake.

    Enumclaw seismic station

    An upgraded Pacific Northwest Seismic Network monitoring station in Enumclaw, Washington, on April 20, 2021. The newly installed solar panels provide power for the system that detects the first signs of an earthquake.

    Washington ShakeAlert stations

    As of late April 2021, more than 230 stations contributed to the ShakeAlert network in Washington state, with more stations going online every week.


    Once the system goes live on May 4, the first signs of an earthquake above a magnitude 4.5 or 5, about when the shaking becomes noticeable indoors, will trigger an alert and a reminder to drop, cover and hold on. Warning times range from a few seconds to tens of seconds depending on your distance to the epicenter. The launch will be silent -- there will be no test on May 4.

    The PNSN operates a growing network of about 230 seismic stations in Washington and some 155 stations in Oregon that provide data for ShakeAlert. When four or more of these instruments detect unusual shaking, that motion is analyzed by computers, someof them on the UW campus, that quickly calculate the size and location of the event.

    hand holding phone with alert

    Alerts will be delivered through Wireless Emergency Alerts, the same system that delivers AMBER alerts. Earthquake alerts are also built into the Android operating system.USGS/ShakeAlert

    People connected to the Wireless Emergency Alert system (the same system that produces AMBER alerts), will now get earthquake alerts for events of magnitude 5 or greater, using a similar interface. Alerts for events of magnitude 4.5 or above will be integrated into Android devices, where screens will also show the earthquake's approximate magnitude and location. When people get an alert, they should use the brief warning to seek immediate protection, following this safety advice. No downloads are required - find out how to get alerts.

    The ShakeAlert system, similar to existing early warning systems in Mexico and Japan, began sending alerts in California in 2019 and in Oregon in March 2021. With the addition of Washington state, the system will now issue warnings to millions more people at risk from the largest possible earthquake in the lower 48 states -- a rupture of the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 700-mile fault that runs from California's Cape Mendocino to the tip of Canada's Vancouver Island (discovered in part through UW research). The alerts will also warn of potentially damaging earthquakes that are more likely to occur sooner, on one of two dozen crustal faults in the Puget Sound region alone, or deeper slips on the underlying ocean plate. The system works by detecting the first signs of an earthquake before the slower-moving but more damaging ground-shaking waves arrive.

    graphic of how earthquake early warning works

    The PNSN began testing the ShakeAlert system with select Washington and Oregon businesses, utilities and organizations in 2015. Besides the individual alerts on phones, the system will be available for organizations or businesses to incorporate into their emergency plans -- for instance, to close water valves, slow trains to prevent derailment, halt surgeries or pause sensitive equipment before the shaking starts.

    "Business in the pilot program have used these alerts to close valves for water and natural gas, stop rotating equipment and alert employees. We have also partnered with Stanwood Elementary School, which has connected the system to its PA system so students can do earthquake drills that use ShakeAlert," said PNSN communications manager Bill Steele, who has coordinated the regional test users.

    Scientists at the PNSN are continuing to improve the system. About 65% of the planned seismic stations in the network are complete in Washington state. PNSN field teams will install more seismometers through late 2025 in places like the Olympic Peninsula and Eastern Washington.

    "The network is successfully detecting earthquakes now, but that doesn't mean we can't make it even better. We're continuing to install seismometers and improve algorithms to make the alerts faster and more reliable, to give people more warning time and lower the chance of any missed events or false alarms," Tobin said.

    Initial development of the earthquake alert system by three West Coast universities, including the UW, began a decade ago and was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The buildout of the system was funded by Congress, with major grants administered by the USGS in 2015 and 2019, and completed by federal and state agencies working with a consortium of four West Coast universities: the UW; the University of Oregon; the University of California, Berkeley; and the California Institute of Technology.

    The Washington system also got state funding in the 2020-21 budget. Private support for Washington's system has also come from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Amazon, Puget Sound Energy and individual donors.


    For more information, contact Tobin at, Steele at and 206-601-5978, or PNSN ShakeAlert user engagement lead Gabriel Lotto at

    See also a USGS press release and a Washington Emergency Management Division press release.

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  • UW launches GeoHazards Initiative; names Paros Chair in Seismology and GeoHazards
    Thursday, April 29, 2021

    The UW’s GeoHazards Initiative aims to study earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and volcanos to prevent the loss of life and property.

    Leveraging the tectonic laboratory of the Cascadia subduction zone, the University of Washington today announced a new effort to best understand how to studyand live with the threats of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos, landslides and other seismic hazards. Dubbed the GeoHazards Initiative, the interdisciplinary work aims to develop and promote the adoption of early detection systems both on land and at sea to help prevent the loss of human life and property.

    Harold Tobin

    "The vision ultimately is for an integrated initiative that will span geohazards and their impact on society," said Harold Tobin, the newly named Paros Endowed Chair in Seismology and Geohazards. "

    A big goal of this new effort is to bring together the strengths of different pieces of the UW research community to tackle all these problems in a truly novel way that can help us make progress on understanding all of those hazardous events and how to mitigate their damaging effects."

    The initiative's starting place will be focused on sensors, both on land and at sea, that can help scientists better understand seismic events and how to detect them as they begin, and even to determine times and places where risk may be heightened.

    "We need to be able to detect movement deep beneath the ground both on land and under the ocean equally, in order to take this to the next level," Tobin said, who already is the Washington state seismologist, directs the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, and is a professor in the Department of Earth & Space Sciences. "And that’s traditionally been two different realms here at the university. But really it's all an Earth process and we need to work together."

    Tobin will initially partner with researchers in the UW School of Oceanography and the UW Applied Physics Lab, with hopes to bring other parts of the university in as the research progresses.

    The work is fueled by a $2 million gift from Jerome "Jerry" M. Paros to fund the named chair. Additionally, UW will match that gift with $2 million to be used over 20 years to launch and support the initiative.

    "The UW is uniquely positioned to be a leader in understanding how geohazards impact our lives," said Paros, a leader in the field of geophysical measurements. He is the founder, president and chairman of Paroscientific, Inc., Quartz Seismic Sensors, Inc. and related companies that use the quartz crystal resonator technology he developed to measure pressure, acceleration, temperature, weight and other parameters. "We just now are beginning to have better detection systems on land and at sea. This effort knits these resources together under Harold's direction. We couldn't be better positioned to push this work forward, ideally protecting property and saving lives."

    Paros has supported science and education with philanthropic endowments at universities and organizations across the country. His prior contributions to the UW include the endowment of the Jerome M. Paros Chair in Sensor Networks and the Cascade Sensor Network Fund. These gifts support the research, development and deployment of new instrumentation and measurement systems that will advance cross-disciplinary knowledge in the oceanic, atmospheric and Earth sciences. In addition, Paros established the Paros Fund for Brain Research at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

    With the Paros Endowed Chair in Seismology and Geohazards, Tobin now has a platform from which to launch the development of new sensing systems on land and under the sea, build coalitions of public and private stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and engage policymakers at the state and federal levels.

    The initiative will launch new research to design, build and deploy arrays of ocean sensors to detect earthquakes, tsunamis and seafloor motion, and to provide data transmission that connects onshore and offshore observations to effectively detect emerging geohazards and mitigate against disasters.

    Technological options for the array could include sensors connected to cables on the seafloor, attached to both dedicated research cables and existing commercial telecom cables. Arrays could also include offshore boreholes, standalone stations on the seafloor that store their data, and mobile platforms like drones or buoys.

    "Offshore sensors can help provide early warning for earthquakes and tsunamis, and help advance scientific understanding of what's happening under the ocean in the Cascadia subduction zone," said William Wilcock, the Jerome M. Paros Endowed Chair in Sensor Networks and professor in the School of Oceanography, who will also work on the GeoHazards Initiative.

    "We already have systems on land that can provide early warnings of seismic events, but we now are developing technologies that can help us better understand earthquakes under the ocean and the tsunamis they produce," Wilcock said.

    The researchers said they plan to investigate the fault systems onshore and offshore using geophysical imaging and direct measurements for groundtruthing to gain insight into the geohazard sources and processes.

    "These activities will build a strategic alliance across the university to position UW as the foremost hub of subduction hazard research, positioning us to compete for emerging national and international opportunities," Tobin said.

    He said it was an honor to receive this new endowed chair in Paros' name, a man who has personally been a driving force in the development of geophysical sensors that are in use across the world.

    "I feel a responsibility to really make this initiative be effective and serve as a platform to work on these problems at a larger scale," Tobin said. "We in Western Washington literally inhabit the subduction zone -- the place where two plates meet -- that is this perfect place to study all these processes from within them. And the University of Washington has the kind of critical mass of expertise and people, and the forward-looking science and technology, to really take concrete steps to leap forward our understanding not just for Washington but for the world."

    For more information, reach Tobin at


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  • Deep earthquakes within the Juan de Fuca plate produce few aftershocks
    Tuesday, April 13, 2021

    In the Cascadia subduction zone, medium- and large-sized "intraslab" earthquakes, in which the slip happens within the oceanic plate and below the continental plate, will likely produce only a few detectable aftershocks, according to a new study from the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey.

    The findings, published April 13 in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, could help seismologists better forecast aftershocks in the Pacific Northwest.

    cracked pavement on highway

    This photo shows Highway 302 after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, which had few aftershocks.USGS

    Seismologists currently make aftershock forecasts based in part on data from other subduction zones around the world. But new research shows that Cascadia intraslab earthquakes, slips that occur within the subducting Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, produce fewer aftershocks compared to similar quakes in other subduction zones. The study shows that in Cascadia, the number of aftershocks for a given magnitude event are less than half the global average for this type of earthquake.

    Joan Gomberg, a UW affiliate professor of Earth and space sciences and researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, and Paul Bodin, a UW research professor of Earth and space sciences, decided to study the phenomenon after recent intraslab earthquakes in Mexico and Alaska produced dozens of aftershocks, including some big jolts.

    "This was startling, because the lore in Cascadia was that intraslab earthquakes had puny aftershock sequences," said Gomberg, who led the study. The Cascadia region experienced three magnitude-6.5 to magnitude-6.8 intraslab earthquakes, in 1949, 1965 and 2001, that produced few to no aftershocks.

    "Additionally, the USGS has begun to generate quantitatively estimated aftershock forecasts based initially on global patterns," Gomberg said. "Given these contrasting regional experiences, it seemed time to generate some objective numbers to base Cascadia’s forecasts on."

    The researchers analyzed catalogs of earthquakes between 1985 and 2018 from the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and the Geological Survey of Canada. Earthquakes that took place in the upper plate produced the most aftershocks, they found. Aftershock rates were the lowest for intraplate earthquakes in the Puget Lowlands portion of the subduction zone, which contains the Seattle metropolitan area, while aftershock rates varied at the northern end of the zone, near Vancouver Island, and at the southern edge, near Cape Mendocino in northern California.

    The tectonic environment at each end of the subductionzone could help explain why aftershock production is higher at the edges, the researchers said. Multiple tectonic plate boundaries meet in these areas, which could "concentrate stress, so more faults exist and are closer to failure than in other areas," they noted.

    Why Cascadia produces so few aftershocks is still unclear, but "one strong possibility would seem to be that temperature for the deeper slab earthquakes is a dominant controlling parameter," Bodin said. In Cascadia, "the young, hot Juan de Fuca plate is being jammed beneath North America."

    The deeper the earthquake, the higher the temperatures, and the researchers found that aftershock activity decreases with depth. "However, this is not so different than southern Mexico, where, as we noted, recent intraslab mainshocks have supported vigorous aftershock sequences," Bodin said.

    The analysis was limited by Cascadia's low seismicity rates, and sparse data to pinpoint the location and depth of most earthquakes in the region. Methods that help researchers detect and locate smaller earthquakes could provide a better sense of overall aftershock rates and the physical processes that control them, the authors argue in the paper.


    For more information, contact Bodin at or Gomberg at

    Adapted from a press release by the Seismological Society of America.

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  • UW AISES Rocketry Team Competing in First Nations Launch
    Friday, April 2, 2021
    The UW chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) is competing this year for the first time in the First Nations Launch sponsored by NASA Wisconsin Space Grant. Students have successfully completed and flown their initial rockets and are nearly finished with construction of their larger competition rocket for launch on 17 April 2021. The group's mentor is Mike Harrell of ESS. Read More
  • Arctic Lightning Up 300% in One 11-Year Study (EOS)
    Monday, March 29, 2021
    Holzworth and his collaborators found that the fraction of lightning occurring in the Arctic increased from roughly 0.2% in 2010 to a little over 0.6% in 2020. That threefold increase is significant, the researchers suggest, and might be tied to warming temperatures in the Arctic. Global temperatures have been climbing in the past few decades, and the Arctic is warming even faster than other parts of the planet. When Holzworth and his colleagues graphed their dimensionless parameter versus the global temperature anomaly, they found a linear correlation. Read More
  • More on Arctic lightning from the WWLLN network
    Thursday, March 25, 2021
    Following the published paper ( ) and press releases by AGU and UW ( ), several news organizations have reported on the new data about lightning strokes detected above 65N. The paper shows a sequence of strokes within <100 km of the north pole in 2019 as part of the 11-year lightning climatology study. see also: Bloomberg News: Read More
  • Warming temperatures tripled Arctic lightning strikes over the past decade
    Monday, March 22, 2021
    Lightning strikes in the Arctic tripled from 2010 to 2020, a finding University of Washington researchers attribute to rising temperatures due to human-caused climate change. The results, researchers say, suggest Arctic residents in northern Russia, Canada, Europe and Alaska need to prepare for the danger of more frequent lightning strikes.

    The study, published March 22 in Geophysical Research Letters, used data from the UW-based World Wide Lightning Location Network to map lightning strikes across the globe from 2010 to 2020. WWLLN sensors detect the short burst of radio waves emitted during a lightning strike.

    The new study found the number of lightning strikes above 65 degrees north latitude during the summer months tripled from 2010 to 2020 as compared to the total number of lightning strikes over the entire globe during the same period.

    "With long periods of ice-free ocean and increasing shipping in the Arctic, you’regoing to have the same problem you have at lower latitudes -- when there’s a lot of people and they don’t know about the lightning threat and it becomes a problem," said lead author Robert Holzworth, a UW professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences.

    Lightning in the Arctic” – Geophysical Research Letters

    Holzworth and his colleagues analyzed the frequency of Arctic lightning strikes occurring during the summer months of June, July and August from 2010 to 2020. They found the percentage of lightning strikes occurring in the Arctic tripled from 0.2% of global lightning strikes in 2010 to 0.6% in 2020. The actual number of lightning strikes above 65 degrees north increased from about 18,000 in 2010 to over 150,000 in 2020.

    During the same time period, Arctic temperatures increased from 0.65 to 0.95 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. Holzworth and his colleagues attribute the increased lightning strikes to these rising temperatures, as warmer summers mean more chances for intense thunderstorms to develop and create lightning.

    Lightning in the Arctic is historically rare, as it usually isn't warm enough to generate the right thunderstorm conditions during which lightning occurs. But researchers have recently noticed more strikes occurring in the northernmost latitudes and they even reported several lightning strikes near the north pole in August 2019. Lightning strikes that do occur in the Arctic tend to happen in the summer when thunderstorms are most likely to form.

    The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, and the study authors found the uptick in lightning strikes matched rising temperatures in the region over the past decade. Arctic temperatures increased by0.3 degrees Celsius from 2010 to 2020; that warming has created more favorable conditions for intense summer thunderstorms that produce lightning, according to the authors.

    Arctic sea ice is declining by about 13% every decade, according to NASA. Less ice means more ocean will be available for shipping through the Arctic, especially in the summer months. Countries like Russia, China, Canada and the United States are already preparing to use the Arctic Ocean as a viable shipping route in the future.

    The new study suggests shipping vessels throughout the Arctic could be more vulnerable to lightning strikes, in addition to those who call the Arctic home.

    Co-authors are Michael McCarthy, Abram Jacobson, Craig Rodger and Todd Anderson at the UW; and James Brundell at the University of Otago in New Zealand.


    For more information, contact Holzworth at This was adapted from a press release from the AGU. An interactive embeddable graphic is available here.


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  • Greenland was ice free some time in the last million years
    Tuesday, March 16, 2021
    A paper in Proceedings of National Academy of Science, led by postdoc Drew Christ at the University of Vermont, with his advisor Paul Bierman (ESS alumn), along with Eric Steig and a large international teams, shows taht the Greenland ice sheet disappareed at least once in the last million years. Many news outlets have picked up the story, including France's top paper, LeMonde. Read More
  • Is potassium a key to understanding the ocean’s past?
    Monday, March 1, 2021
    When looking at a periodic table, potassium might not be the first element you’re drawn to – distracted instead by gold, copper or silver. But a new paper published in Science Advances suggests we should be paying more attention to this abundant substance. Read More