Utah might be more at risk for a potential geological disaster than previously thought, according to Scott Burns, a professor from Portland State University.

“Earthquakes are the one geological hazard that we have that we still can’t predict,” Burns said.

The geology professor visited Weber State University on Wednesday and explained to students in his lecture that Utah lies on what’s called a “subduction zone.” These zones, which occur when one tectonic plate moves underneath another, increase the chance of being confronted with powerful earthquakes and volcanoes.

Burns discussed the dangers of one specific plate which boundary lies just west of the Pacific coast called the Juan de Fuca plate. It runs in a parallel direction from the coasts of Canada, past the Pacific Northwest and into the oceans off Northern California. The Juan de Fuca plate formed the Cascade Mountain Range in Washington, and movement in the plate was reportedly the cause of several small earthquakes in 2008.

Amanda Gentry, WSU’s geology club president, has studied the after-effects of earthquakes and volcanoes. She described liquefaction as having the ability to topple buildings, sink foundations and transform the face of the earth into a bog of mud and sand.

“You have sand and water, and if you shake it all, the water will rise,” Gentry stated.

During the presentation, Burns displayed graphic photographs of vehicles that had sunken into the ground and buildings that had been demolished by earthquakes in the past.
Some in the audience reacted with surprise and interest.

Brittany Stott, a junior majoring in elementary education, said her family is prepared for potential disastrous situations.

“We have emergency kits. Although, we could probably update them,” Stott said.

Burns listed the major dangers that would accompany an earthquake, like ground-shaking, liquefaction, landslides and tsunamis, and stressed the importance of emergency preparation. In the case of multiple aftershocks, for instance, Utahns could be faced with the exacerbated results of an already-large disaster.

Student Nick Pinnau, a geoscience major, recognized the threat of an earthquake but seemed less intimidated.

“If it happens and I die, there is not much I can do about it,” Pinnau said.

Associate Professor Michael Hernandez believes that there is more that students can do to prepare for an earthquake.

“The best way to prepare is to learn what resources are available in the community,” Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, Utah has the Community Emergency Response Teams and other members of the community who have been trained to help folks after an earthquake.

To help give an idea when earthquakes will hit Utah, earthquake specialists report recurrence intervals showing a map of active faults along the Wasatch Front.

According to the University of Utah seismograph stations, the last earthquake to occur along the Wasatch Front with a magnitude between 5.5 and 6.5 occurred 25 years ago.  Burns stated that this magnitude is enough to cause property damage. The report also stated that the estimate-of-recurrence interval is every 24 years.  This means that the Wasatch Front is one year overdue for the estimated recurrence interval.

An earthquake is just not something you can predict according to Hernandez.

“We will have earthquakes again in Utah. The question is when,” Hernandez said.

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