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Quake Center Given $10 Million for 5-Year Study

Research: The facility at USC will focus on the physics of temblors and hazards specific to the Southland.

January 25, 2002|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The National Science Foundation has awarded $10 million to the Southern California Earthquake Center, headquartered at USC, for five years of research to better understand the physics of earthquakes and specific hazards in the Southland.

Although scientists involved said Thursday that they expect new computer systems developed with the funds will centralize their knowledge and allow more precise quake simulations, they cautioned that no prediction of specific quakes is likely by the end of the study.

Many academic and scientific institutions throughout California and the United States will participate in the work under the auspices of the Earthquake Center.

"We're not about to predict earthquakes," said Bernard Minster, a UC San Diego geophysicist who is the center's science director. But "if we can better understand the aspects of the physics, then we should be able to predict some aspects of the earthquake process for a short period into the future."

Minster said that despite issuing some general 30-year quake probabilities in the past, "we still do not have a framework in which we can put in all the various aspects of the earthquake physics."

"We don't have a way of putting everything together and ending the gaps in our understanding," he added.

That, he said, is what the new study is designed to bring about.

With the new computer systems to be developed, scientists all over the country will be able to summon very quickly all that becomes known, he said.

Tom Heaton, professor of earthquake engineering at Caltech and a member of the board of the Earthquake Center, said the overall aim is to get a better overview of seismic hazards in Southern California.

"Until now, we've only been able to say that quakes are happening in some areas," he said.

"We didn't really focus on the issue of how the system works, why some quakes are big and others small, whether they are happening regularly or on a random basis."

How the system works is "a surprisingly rich physics problem," he said.

More intricate earthquake models will be constructed with the National Science Foundation grant, "but will they be stable enough to tell when something is going to happen?" Heaton questioned.

Ned Field of the Pasadena office of the U.S. Geological Survey said one of the most important aspects of the study "will be building the next generation of information technology and building computer capacity.

"So this project is not only an application to a problem but the further development of the Internet," he said.

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