The study of earthquakes fits Utah Valley University’s Earth Sciences Department to a “T.”
Faculty and students make detailed topographic maps of earthquake-affected areas, dig trenches and study the soils. The Topliff fault, west of Utah Lake, is of particular interest. It’s the second-longest fault in the state, measuring 250 kilometers. Because of its proximity to Provo, and surrounding population centers, any seismic activity could have a significant impact on Utah County.
Making topographic maps — the first “T” — is not new. But, the UVU crews produce highly detailed maps, accurate to within a few inches, according to Michael Bunds, a professor in the Earth Sciences Department.
“We use very cool technological methods to make really high-resolution maps of the ground surveys,” he said. “We do this using drones, sUAS’s, small uncrewed aerial systems. They let us make accurate measurements of the movement of the ground. We can compare and see how the ground has moved.”
Instead of using more traditional drones, the UVU team is mapping the region using aircraft with longer flying times and GPS units to mark the locations of the images taken.
“On some projects, we have taken 13,000 to 15,000 photographs,” Bunds said. “We did a recent project mapping the southern portion of the San Andreas fault. If another earthquake happens, we have an amazing dataset, with 50 times more data points than others had previously.”
Although the technology is not new, it is not widely available at this point, said Nathan Toké, an associate professor in the Earth Sciences Department.
“It has been interesting, and we are learning new things from it,” he said. “If there is an earthquake, we will be able to assess better what has happened.”
Looking at the past can help predict and guide the future.
“We use the maps to make measurements,” Bunds said. “We can help make forecasts about what will happen in the future; to forecast future earthquakes we look at the past. In our area, they are pretty much prehistoric. We figure out how big they were, where they were and how long it has been since the last one.”
Predicting an earthquake is not an exact science. Scientists look at thousand-year periods when considering the frequency between events. Predicting a high chance of earthquake activity in a specific location is a means of planning for the future.
“It is useful for planning things like developments and power plants,” Bunds said.
Another “T” is for trenching.
“The Topliff fault has different levels,” Bunds said. “We can go deeper and be safe.”
As they dig, they analyze the layers of soil.
“We can tell the last time the sediments saw light,” Bunds said. “We collect samples without them ever seeing the light, and then estimate their age.”
The team has determined that the Topliff fault has had three earthquakes in the last 10,000 to 15,000 years.
The UVU faculty and students did the topographic mapping in 2017 and the trenching in 2019. There were approximately 20 students involved in the project.
“They got a lot of really relevant work experience,” Toké said.
Not only did they do the mapping and trenching, but nine of them also were able to present their findings at professional conferences. The complete results of this study have not yet been released, but the researchers anticipate they will have the opportunity to share their work.
“It absolutely, positively fits UVU’s engaged learning,” Bunds said.
“Many universities don’t put as much money toward undergraduate research as UVU does. It is very helpful.” The experience leads to careers and academic opportunities. “At least two of our students have gone on to do graduate work,” Toké said.
Not only did students do the fieldwork and make presentations, but they also collaborated with others for analysis and helped increase UVU’s standing among professionals. The project also has increased collaboration with other Utah institutions of higher education. Students worked with counterparts at Utah State University to process the photographs and create topographic maps.
UVU received some funding from the National Science Foundation and submitted its findings to the group, making them publicly available.
“For the type of work we are doing, we are the NSF’s biggest submitters,” Bunds said.