Learning from the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake

OLYMPIA, Wash. – There is something about earthquakes that has always intrigued University of Washington professor Harold Tobin. When you speak to him, earthquakes remain top of mind.

“Understanding that the earth is actually in motion and that there is plate tectonics going on is what first hooked me in,” Tobin said. “We can help society if we understand faults better.”

For Tobin, who is director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and an earth and space sciences professor at the University of Washington, tracking earthquakes is a passionate life work.

“The public should be prepared all of the time for the possibility of an earthquake,” he said.

To prepare the public by tracking earthquakes, his office is located in the basement area of UW’s atmospheric science building, called the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Yes, they track quakes, but it’s also somewhat of a museum. Pinned on a wall is the actual seismometer reading that shows the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

“This is the actual recording of the Nisqually earthquake, made by PNSN seismometers on the old-fashioned drum recorders as they're called,” he said. “It started at 10:54 a.m. that day and the big stronger shaking went on for about 30 seconds.”

For those that were here at the time, 30 seconds felt like an eternity.

The magnitude 6.8 Nisqually quake damaged several buildings, including the state capitol building and several buildings in downtown Seattle. It even damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct at the time.

The earthquake also injured hundreds of people.

One thing that the earthquake research from then shows is that it was felt all over the region. Professor Tobin showed Q13 News a monitor in PNSN that shows the intensity of the quake from the epicenter.

“The colors get yellower, the more intense the shaking was. And you can see how focused it is in the Olympia, Nisqually, Tacoma region,” Tobin said.

According to Tobin, the earthquake was deep, meaning it started about 35 miles below the surface. Had it been shallower, it’s likely it would’ve caused more damage, he said.

“Yeah, probably so. The seismic waves get weaker as they move away from the source. Just like ripples in a pond,” he said.

Another thing is that there weren't many aftershocks, which could've caused more damage, he said. It’s also been 18 years since the Nisqually quake.

“It was the type of earthquake that we’re actually most likely to see most frequently,” said Tobin.

It's just a matter of when. Similar quakes like Nisqually happened in 1949 and 1965.

Which is why technology is coming into focus, with the earthquake early warning system, or Shake Alert, that just came online a couple of months ago.

“If there was an earthquake off shore in Cascadia Subduction Zone or an earthquake like Nisqually, then regions a little bit further from the epicenter will get seconds up to a minute of warning,” said Tobin.

Which may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to save lives.

“If a school gets an alert and has an automated system to sound the intercom, all the kids could be under the desks, before stuff from the ceiling starts falling down,” said Tobin.

The Shake Alert could be beneficial for infrastructure, like warning people on bridges, stopping a commuter train and even protecting our resources like our water supply, he said.

“So that we know that we have water to fight fires after earthquakes and also for drinking water, etc.,” he said.

According to Tobin, several groups are working on securing funding to expand the network and to provide the infrastructure to open it to the public. In Los Angeles, they currently are testing out an app with Shake Alert technology there to see how it acts in a heavily dense population.

Here in Washington, you can’t sign up for shake alerts yet. Only a few utilities are testing it out.

According to Tobin, the Shake Alert Network still needs more sensors to make it available to the public. Current estimates for the operation and maintenance of the system will run about $29 million a year and $39 million to complete the network.