Plate Tectonics and People

Brian Atwater

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<blockquote>“without Brian, the Pacific Northwest might have been still considered a safe place from great subduction earthquakes.” -Kenji Satake, Japanese Geologist</blockquote>
<div class="img-center"><img alt="Brian Atwater" src="
<div class="img-caption">Brian Atwater</div>
<div class="img-credit">Photo Source: <a href="">University of Washington</a></div>
<h3>Biographical Information</h3>
<p>Born in Connecticut, on September 18 1951, Brian Atwater is currently 64 years old. He credits his time as a scout during his childhood for developing his love of the outdoors, and wanting a career that would allow him to be outside. He is a USGS scientist who is also an affiliate professor at the University of Washington in Earth and Space Sciences. Atwater received his Bachelor of Sciences from Stanford University and his Ph.D from the University of Delaware.</p>
<h3>Specific contributions to the theory of plate tectonics and/or our modern view of the solid Earth</h3>
<p>Brian Atwater is credited with being the scientist who proved that the Cascadia subduction zone is much more deadly and dangerous than previously believed. In the mid-1980s he began research on crustal uplift in the Pacific Northwest as a way to determine if a large earthquake had occurred in the region, and, if yes, how big it had been. Written records in the area now known as the Cascadia Subduction zone, which stretches 1100 kms from Vancouver, British Columbia to Northern California, only go back about 200 years and therefore provided no written record of a large scale earthquake ever occurring in this region.</p>
<div class="img-center"><img alt="Cascadia Subduction Zone" src="/earth520/sites/
<div class="img-caption">Red line shows the extent of the Cascadia Subduction Zone along the west coast of North America</div>
<div class="img-credit">Photo Source: <a href="
<p>He calculated that the bulge of the plates was growing at a rate of 3 mm/year. Using this data, he went in search of evidence of past uplift, and subsequent drop, of the North American plate. This would have occurred if there had been a large earthquake in the region in the past.</p>
<p>Working with little more than a canoe and his rock hammer, Atwater set out along the Niawiakum and Copalis rivers in Washington State to find evidence of this uplift. Here he was able to find evidence of salt marshes that had quickly dropped in elevation, and was covered by about 10 cm of sand that would be associated with a tsunami. He used evidence from previous known tsunamis from around the world to come to the conclusion that a large scale earthquake and tsunami had occurred along this coastline.</p>
<div class="img-center"><img alt="Cascadia's fire pits used by Native Americans, sand deposited by 1700 tsunami, grass, topsoil, dune sand, and tidal mud" src="">
<div class="img-caption">Evidence of sand deposited by the 1700 tsunami can be found in Washington state. This sand is overlying sediments that would have previously been above water level.</div>
<div class="img-credit">Photo source: USGS</div>
<p>Atwater also used dendrochronology (tree ring dating) to prove his hypothesis. He studied the ghost forests of Western Washington. Here there are large areas of cedar trees that were killed when salt water rushed into their root systems. In many areas these trees still stand but are dead. This occurs when land subsides following an earthquake allowing for the ocean to rush in and floor the forest floor following an earthquake. Radiocarbon dating concluded that the trees had been killed between August 1699 and May 1700.</p>
<div class="img-center"><img alt="Coastal Forest, great earthquake land sinks flooding forest, within an hour tsunami rushes ashore, dead forest in a tidal flat, ghost forest" src="/earth520/sites/
<div class="img-caption">Diagram showing the formation of a ghost forest similar to what Dr. Atwater discovered in Washington State.</div>
<div class="img-credit">Photo Source: <a href=" College</a></div>
<p>The final piece of the geologic puzzle came with working with Japanese geologists. Japanese written accounts go back further that along the Pacific west coast, and tell a story of a tsunami flooding the coast of Japan the evening of January 27, 1700. This tsunami caused wide spread damage, but seemingly had no cause as no earthquake was felt in Japan. It became known as the "Orphan Tsunami".</p>
<p>These three pieces of evidence combined, as well as Aboriginal stories of the great shaking, have lead scientists to believe that in January of 1700 an estimated 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred along the Cascadia subduction zone. This resulted in the Orphan tsunami that flooded the shores of Japan across the Pacific ocean. Brian Atwater is reluctant to take the credit that has been bestowed on him for his discovery. He credits many other scientists for the work that they have done; however, he has become the face of this discovery.</p>
<h3>Other important scientific contributions</h3>
<p>Through his research on earthquakes and tsunamis, Atwater is considered instrumental in preventing Washington State from moving towards the building of nuclear power plants. He argued that a large earthquake, and subsequent tsunami could cause large scale devastation to a nuclear reaction. This was later proven following the earthquake in Japan.</p>
<h3>Other cool stuff you should know</h3>
<p>Brian Atwater was named one of Time magazines 100 most influential people in 2005.</p>
<p>At the age of 50, Atwater learned Japanese in order to better understand the Japanese research that had been done on tsunamis.</p>
<p>Brian Atwater received the USGS Leadership Award in 2007 for his work on tsunami hazard warning systems in the Indian ocean region.</p>
<p>In 2007, Atwater was elected into the National Academy of Sciences.</p>
<p>American Museum of Natural History, ND, Ghosts of Tsunamis Past: <a href="http:// (Accessed: September 2015)</p>
<p>Atwater, B et al. 2005, The Orphan Tsunami of 1700:<a href=""></a> (Accessed: August 2015)</p>
<p>Lubick, N, 2005, Brian Atwater: Earthquake Hunter in the Field: <a href="">http://www.geotimes... (Accessed: September 2015).</p>
<p>Nash, J, 2005, The 2005 Time 100: Brian Atwater: <a href=",28804,1972656_1... (Accessed: August 2015).</p>
<p>Than, K, 2005, Orphan Tsunami Gets a Frightening Parent: <a href=" </a>(Accessed: September 2015)</p>
<p>USGS, 2008, Brian Atwater Honored for Receiving USGS Award, Being Elected to National Academy of Sciences: <a href="">http://soundwav... (Accessed: September 2015).</p>
<p>USGS, 2007, USGS Scientist Shows Evidence for 300-Year-Old Tsunami to Participants in International Tsunami Training Institute: <a href="">http://soundw... (Accessed: August 2015)</p>
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