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University of Utah to Monitor Olympic Earthquakes - Thanks to USGS
Released: 1/30/2002

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communication
119 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
John Filson 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-4463

Carolyn Bell
Phone: 703-648-4463

Lee Siegel
Phone: 801-581-8993



University of Utah seismologists will be on duty around-the-clock during the Olympics, armed with a new $1.2 million system so they can quickly supply public safety information if any disruptive earthquakes shake the 2002 Winter Games.

"A basic, real-time earthquake information system has just been completed in Utah’s densely populated Wasatch Front region in time for seismologists to rapidly deliver key information to emergency managers and the public if an ’Olympics earthquake’ visits Utah," said Walter Arabasz, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations.

The improved earthquake-monitoring system of sensors, computers and telecommunications equipment was made possible with $965,000 in funds and equipment provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and another $235,000 in funds and personnel support from the state of Utah.

During the Olympic Winter Games, worldwide attention will focus on the Wasatch Range, where crowds of people will watch skiers, skaters, snowboarders and bobsledders compete in steep terrain. The Wasatch Range appears majestic and serene. But underneath the mountains, rock continues to grind slowly along the Wasatch fault, lifting the mountains and producing earthquakes. Although most of these earthquakes are small, there is the potential for infrequent, large earthquakes, which could have devastating effects.

Mindful of these facts, and lessons learned from the 1989 "World Series earthquake" that killed more than five dozen people in northern California, Arabasz, seismic network manager Sue Nava and other earthquake scientists at the University of Utah and the U.S. Geological Survey jointly installed new tools for delivering fast information for public safety if any disruptive quakes occur during the Olympics.

The new, real-time earthquake system’s key information product is a ShakeMap - a rapidly generated computer map, available within about 5 minutes of an earthquake, that gives an overview of the location, severity, and extent of actual ground shaking, just like a Doppler radar image for a weather disturbance. The information is sent to emergency managers and appears on the web site http://www.quake.utah.edu or http://www.seis.utah.edu

Olympic venues in Wasatch Front valleys are chiefly at risk from damaging shaking from a moderate to large earthquake of Richter magnitude 5 or greater. Arabasz estimates there is a 1-in-3,500 probability of the Big One - a magnitude-7 or stronger quake - on the Wasatch fault in or near the Ogden-Salt Lake City-Provo corridor during the time period of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Estimates indicate a magnitude-7.5 quake on the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch fault could kill up to 7,600 people, injure 44,000 others and cause about $12 billion in damage.

Moderate quakes are somewhat more likely. Arabasz says the probability of a magnitude-5 or greater shock within the metropolitan corridor is about 1 in 1,700 during the Olympics or Paralympics.

Even minor to moderate earthquakes of magnitude 4 or more could endanger alpine venues or their access roads by triggering avalanches or landslides. The chance of such an earthquake occurring within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of one of the alpine venues during the Olympic Winter Games is about 1-in-750, Arabasz says.

If the chance of a quake during the Olympics seems remote, consider what happened during some other sporting events:

In October 1989, a major quake measuring 6.9 in magnitude (initially reported at 7.1) rocked the San Francisco Bay region during the third baseball game of the World Series. A live television audience of millions witnessed the direct effects of the earthquake shaking Candlestick Park. That quake killed 63 people, injured more than 3,700 others and caused up to $10 billion in damage.

During the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, a magnitude-5 quake rattled alpine skiers at the starting line, shook rooms in multistory apartment buildings at Olympic Village, delayed bullet trains for two hours, made floors shudder in the press center in Nagano and triggered a landslide that blocked traffic.

Less than two months later, in April 1998, a magnitude-4.5 quake in Italy made bleachers sway in a soccer stadium in Gualdo Tadino, sending 1,500 panicked fans fleeing. Two were injured.

The usefulness of the new ShakeMap system is illustrated by what happened in the first few hours following the 1989 World Series quake, which was centered 60 miles southeast of San Francisco. Emergency responders had poor information on where the strongest shaking and greatest damage actually occurred. They depended unduly on news media reports to guide their response actions, and overlooked for hours some hard-hit areas. ShakeMaps can identify areas of strong shaking within minutes.

Arabasz and Nava realized in 1998 they might have to deal with a 2002 "Olympics earthquake" on their watch. They set out to find funding to build a real-time earthquake information system in Utah, patterned after a $20 million state-of-the art system in southern California. Now that the basic $1 million system is in place, Utah seismologists will be on duty seven days a week around-the-clock during the Winter Games, just in case they need to provide quick information on an earthquake. Although installation of the earthquake monitoring system was accelerated to be in place for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the primary motivation was to provide for the long-term needs for earthquake safety in Utah’s dramatically growing Wasatch Front area. Similar efforts are underway in other at-risk U.S. metropolitan areas under a program known as the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). Authorized by Congress in 2000 and led by the USGS, the ANSS plan calls for installation of over 6,000 sensors to monitor earthquake shaking in 26 metropolitan areas across the United States. ANSS is currently only about 5 percent completed, but substantive progress has been made in a few select regions such as the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, the Seattle-Tacoma region, and the San Francisco Bay area.

In addition to the ANSS seed funding from the USGS, the University of Utah also received help from the Union Pacific Foundation, the Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Utah Geological Survey.


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