October 10, 2018

When the Earth Moves

UMass Amherst geoscientist uses a cutting-edge method to study earthquake-prone areas

Could information about activity deep beneath Earth’s crust help humans prepare for major earthquakes through building, planning, and infrastructure? University of Massachusetts Assistant Professor of Geosciences Haiying Gao has received a five-year, $525,800 early CAREER development grant from the National Science Foundation to model and compare five zones across the world where formidable quakes have occurred, for the first time characterizing their fundamental differences and similarities—and giving valuable insight into the way Earth behaves.

UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Geosciences Haiying Gao.

UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Geosciences Haiying Gao.

The CAREER award brings with it opportunities for students. Following on the grant’s significant educational and outreach component, Gao will be developing a seismology workshop for undergraduates, as well as introducing earth science to 8th through 12th-grade girls through the Holyoke-based Girls Inc. program. “I am looking for students with interests in seismology, geophysics, and tectonics,” she says.

Gao is an expert in the activity of “subduction zones,” areas where two plates in Earth’s crust come into contact, and one slides beneath the other. These are where most of Earth’s large earthquakes happen. Subduction zones can generate earthquakes of an 8.5 magnitude or higher, and are home to volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and landslides.

Gao uses seismic-wave readings from the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope array to model the structures beneath Earth’s surface. Since crunching so much data relies on heavy computation, Gao avails herself of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke. “That is the facility that allows me to carry out this work,” she says. “Now we have the method, the facility, and all the seismic data we can use. We need those three things together, so it’s timely to do this work now.”

The CAREER grant will allow Gao to do more deep modeling, adding to the understanding of how massive earthquakes are distributed and what factors contribute to their arising. Even now, Earth’s plates are in motion: the Pacific plate moving up, continents slowly yet ineluctably being reorganized. “It has always been moving,” comments Gao. “It never stops.”