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  • The Antarctic Peninsula's new heat record could soon be broken | National Geographic
    Tuesday, February 18, 2020
    Experts expect to see more extreme warming events in the future, raising alarm bells about the future of the world's largest frozen landmass. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • The mystery of superbolt lightning | Inside Science
    Thursday, February 13, 2020
    While studying space plasma physics, Robert Holzworth, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, and his team needed to keep track of lightning strikes around the world and built the World Wide Lightning Location Network. Holzworth is interviewed in this Inside Science video. Read More
  • Researchers at AAAS to discuss latest science on Cascadia earthquake hazards
    Thursday, February 13, 2020

    Substantial damage to Seattle's Pioneer Square can be seen in this photo of the aftermath of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake.FEMA News Photo by Kevin Galvin

    The Pacific Northwest’s most recent large earthquake, the 2001 Nisqually earthquake near Seattle, was a magnitude 6.8, but history shows that the region could be rocked any day by a much larger event. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting this week in Seattle, researchers from the University of Washington and federal agencies will discuss the latest science on megaquakes as an emerging topic of concern.

    earthquake damage to brick building

    A set of three presentations and discussions, “Is the Coast Toast? Cascadia mega-earthquakes, tsunamis and potential impacts” will take place on Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Washington State Convention Center.

    Organized by Alison Duvall, an assistant professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, and Harold Tobin, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the event will provide the latest research on seismic hazards, both along the coast and in built-up areas inland.

    “We hope to inform the audience and public about what is and is not known about subduction-zone earthquakes and their effects,” Tobin said. “While the scenarios will be specific to Cascadia, the fundamental work is about investigating how fault movement launches tsunamis and under what conditions the seismic waves create ground shaking that affects buildings and other structures.”

    The title references a line from the infamous 2015 New Yorker article, “The Really Big One,” that put Pacific Northwest megaquakes on the popular radar. Evidence from tsunamis shows that a huge earthquake occurred off the Pacific Northwest on January 26, 1700. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a 14% chance it could occur again in the next 50 years.

    The session will consider both what such an earthquake might look like, and what it could mean for buildings and other structures in Seattle -- many of which were built before the region’s seismic hazards were fully understood.

    Diego Arcas, director of the Center for Tsunami Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will begin the session at 3:30 p.m. with a discussion of new directions in tsunami modeling, which is the greatest hazard to communities on the Washington and Oregon coasts. Then, Erin Wirth, a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey and UW affiliate assistant professor in Earth and space sciences, will present on supercomputer simulations of Pacific Northwest megaquakes.

    Wirth builds on her 2017 work, as a UW postdoctoral researcher, that simulated what a magnitude-9 megathrust earthquake could look like depending on where along the Cascadia subduction zone the offshore rupture starts, and how close the slipping gets to cities on land. The team has now refined its results and begun to apply the simulations to estimate infrastructure damage.

    “Since we don’thave any direct observational records of the 1700 earthquake, our 3D supercomputer simulations of various possible magnitude-9 Cascadia earthquake scenarios has allowed us to quantify the range of possible ground shaking the Pacific Northwest might experience,” Wirth said.

    Jeffrey Berman, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering, will close with a talk focused on damage, titled: “Effects of simulated magnitude-9 earthquakes on structures in the Pacific Northwest.” He is leading the research on building response with Marc Eberhard, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.

    Jeffrey Berman will also give an informal presentation at the UW booth (#219) from 2-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15. See here for a full list of UW faculty booth appearances. Meeting badge required.

    On Saturday, Berman will share results of a paper published this month in the Journal of Structural Engineering that considers how 32 midrise to tall building types, ranging from 4 to 40 stories, would fare in 30 different simulated Cascadia magnitude-9 earthquakes. The study led by Nasser Marafi, a UW postdoctoral researcher, finds that the current building codes underestimate how much shaking would occur as the loose soil in the Seattle basin amplifies the frequency of waves generated by offshore earthquakes, with strong shaking projected to last for almost two minutes.

    “The Cascadia subduction zone ground motions have longer duration and different frequency content than the ground motions experienced in California, which has formed the basis for most U.S. building codes,” Berman said. “The impact of those differences on structural performance was a big unknown prior to this research.”

    Each presentation will also include questions from those attending the AAAS annual meeting.

    “We are hoping that our session communicates the latest in subduction-zone research, but we also look forward to opening up a dialog between panelists and the audience,” Duvall said. “The AAAS format is special that way, that it offers a real chance for two-way communication.”

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  • Throwing ice down an ice hole makes crazy laser sounds | Nerdist
    Wednesday, February 12, 2020
    Researchers in Antarctica have been working hard to find the answer to a critical question that will help us make more-effective predictive climate models. But those researchers have also taken a little "chill" time here and there to throw some ice bricks down super-deep holes in the ground. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
  • UW ESS Students Establish Contact with HuskySat-1 Satellite
    Tuesday, February 11, 2020
    Students in the Husky Satellite Lab at the UW have been celebrating successes since HuskySat-1, a student built satellite weighing about 9 lbs, deployed into space on Friday, January 31st. Read More
  • Risk of landslides in western Washington increases as rain subsides | KING 5
    Monday, February 10, 2020
    Experts say while the rain is starting to subside, the risk of landslides will persist due to heavily saturated soils. Alison Duvall, assistant professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Antarctica just hit 65 degrees, its warmest temperature ever recorded | The Washington Post
    Friday, February 7, 2020
    Just days after the earth saw its warmest January on record, Antarctica has broken its warmest temperature ever recorded. A reading of 65 degrees was taken Thursday at Esperanza Base along Antarctica's Trinity Peninsula, making it the ordinarily frigid continent's highest measured temperature in history. Eric Steig, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Old tapes reveal new details of a deadly volcanic outburst | Nature
    Wednesday, February 5, 2020
    Decades-old analogue tapes have yielded unprecedented details of earthquakes that shook Mount St. Helens in the months leading up to its cataclysmic eruption in 1980. Stephen Malone, emeritus research professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is mentioned. Read More
  • Ep. 43: A reality check on regenerative agriculture | Undark
    Monday, February 3, 2020
    Farmers and researchers are testing the environmental and economic claims about a new type of agriculture. David Montgomery, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
  • Tiny, ancient meteorites suggest early Earth's atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide
    Monday, January 27, 2020

    Very occasionally, Earth gets bombarded by a large meteorite. But every day, our planet gets pelted by space dust, micrometeorites that collect on Earth’s surface.

    shiny black balls on red background

    These tiny meteorites, about half a millimeter across, fell into the ocean and were collected from the deep sea. Like the samples used in the new study, these more recent micrometeorites are made of iron.Donald Brownlee/University of Washington

    A University of Washington team looked at very old samples of these small meteorites to show that the grains could have reacted with carbon dioxide on their journey to Earth. Previous work suggested the meteorites ran into oxygen, contradicting theories and evidence that the Earth’s early atmosphere was virtually devoid of oxygen. The new study was published this week in the open-access journal Science Advances.

    “Our finding that the atmosphere these micrometeorites encountered was high in carbon dioxide is consistent with what the atmosphere was thought to look like on the early Earth,” said first author Owen Lehmer, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences.

    At 2.7 billion years old, these are the oldest known micrometeorites. They were collected in limestone in the Pilbara region of Western Australia and fell during the Archean eon, when the sun was weaker than today. A 2016 paper by the team that discovered the samples suggested they showed evidence of atmospheric oxygen at the time they fell to Earth.

    That interpretation would contradict current understandings of our planet’s early days, which is that oxygen rose during the “Great Oxidation Event,” almost half a billion years later.

    Knowing the conditions on the early Earth is important not just for understanding the history of our planet and the conditions when life emerged. It can also help inform the search for life on other planets.

    “Life formed more than 3.8 billion years ago, and how life formed is a big, open question. One of themost important aspects is what the atmosphere was made up of -- what was available and what the climate was like,” Lehmer said.

    The new study takes a fresh look at interpreting how these micrometeorites interacted with the atmosphere, 2.7 billion years ago. The sand-sized grains hurtled toward Earth at up to 20 kilometers per second. For an atmosphere of similar thickness to today, the metal beads would melt at about 80 kilometers elevation, and the molten outer layer of iron would then oxidize when exposed to the atmosphere. A few seconds later the micrometeorites would harden again for the rest of their fall. The samples would then remain intact, especially when protected under layers of sedimentary limestone rock.

    The previous paper interpreted the oxidization on the surface as a sign that the molten iron had encountered molecular oxygen. The new study uses modeling to ask whether carbon dioxide could have provided the oxygen to produce the same result. A computer simulation finds that an atmosphere made up of from 6% to more than 70% carbon dioxide could have produced the effect seen in the samples.

    “The amount of oxidation in the ancient micrometeorites suggests that the early atmosphere was very rich in carbon dioxide,” said co-author David Catling, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences.

    For comparison, carbon dioxide concentrations today are rising and are currently at about 415 parts per million, or 0.0415% of the atmosphere’s composition.

    High levels of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, would counteract the sun’s weaker output during the Archean era. Knowing the exactconcentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could help pinpoint air temperature and and acidity of the oceans during that time.

    More of the ancient micrometeorite samples could help narrow the range of possible carbon dioxide concentrations, the authors wrote. Grains that fell at other times could also help trace the history of Earth’s atmosphere through time.

    “Because these iron-rich micrometeorites can oxidize when they are exposed to carbon dioxide or oxygen, and given that these tiny grains presumably are preserved throughout Earth’s history, they could provide a very interesting proxy for the history of atmospheric composition,” Lehmer said.

    Other co-authors are Donald Brownlee, a UW professor emeritus of astronomy; Roger Buick, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences; and Sarah Newport, a former UW undergraduate who is now at Rutgers University. The research was funded by NASA, the UW Astrobiology Program, the UW Virtual Planetary Laboratory and the Simons Foundation’s Collaboration on the Origins of Life.


    For more information, contact Lehmer at or Catling at 206-543-8653 or

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