Chile Opts for Implementing Deep-Sea Earthquake and Tsunami Observation System

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In the framework of the first FONDEQUIP Contest for Major Scientific and Technological Equipment, a group made up of the Millennium Institute of Oceanography (IMO), the University of Concepción, the University of Antofagasta, the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, and the Austral University of Chile in cooperation with GEOMAR (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany) and HADAL (Center for Hadal Research in Odense, Denmark) won competitive funding for a project entitled “Integrated Deep-Ocean Observing System for Research in Geoscience.”

Only three projects were approved in the whole country, this one being one of them. Its aim is to establish the first observing system anchored in the eastern South Pacific Ocean’s deep sea—which includes the Atacama Trench—in order to study the structure and temporal variability of the area’s physical, geochemical and biological conditions, as well as its ocean floor deformation throughout time caused by the Nazca Plate’s subduction underneath the South American plate.

Combining geophysics, geology, and oceanography, this interdisciplinary effort will allow us to detect, quantify, and understand different processes taking place in the ocean’s great depths. Moreover, it will lay the scientific foundations for the establishment of a future national ocean observing system, a deep-sea environmental protection plan, and a potential ocean earthquake and tsunami early warning system.

For a maritime, earthquake-prone nation like Chile, having top-quality underwater science and the possibility of carrying out observations, experiments, and monitoring through cutting-edge technology is not just a necessity, but a duty.

An Interdisciplinary Project Based on Frontier Research

According to Dr. Marcos Moreno, professor at the University of Concepción, IMO researcher, and director of the project, “This project arises from the eagerness of an interdisciplinary group of national and international researchers to explore the oceanographic and geological processes taking place in Chile’s sea, especially those that are related to major earthquakes and to the ecology of deep-sea systems.” Additionally, Dr. Moreno explained, “Being awarded this project will make it possible for us to develop Chile’s first integrated deep ocean observing system, which is totally unprecedented. It will raise us onto the same level with countries such as Canada, the United States, or Japan.”

Regarding the project’s usefulness, Dr. Moreno observed, “Due to the fact that major earthquakes take place in subduction zones located dozens of kilometers under the ocean floor, seismic and terrestrial geodetic data analysis resolution is low. This has limited the observation of signs related to those earthquakes in areas that are close to their source, which in turn has resulted in a lack of knowledge regarding their mechanics and attendant seismic risks. Therefore, our system will make it possible to detect slow, low-magnitude ocean floor movements to characterize deformations linked to major earthquakes and obtain data that will allow us to characterize their seismic mechanics, which will help us gain a better understanding of seismic risks in Chile.”

Dr. Marcelo Oliva, professor at the University of Antofagasta and IMO researcher, observes that the new system represents, “new alternatives for marine sciences research in the north of Chile, allowing our university to keep the standard of excellence in oceanographic research it enjoys today.” Additionally, Dr. Oliva remarked that even though “installing and maintaining stable oceanographic equipment in the Atacama Trench, at a depth of over 8,000 meters,” will pose a great challenge, “this effort will result in a great gain of new knowledge since the biological, physicochemical, geological, geophysical, and seismic processes taking place in that area are almost utterly unknown as of today.”

Finally, asked about the features of this system, which will be installed off the coast of Chile’s Norte Grande, Dr. Oliva pointed out that, since it will be located in the Atacama Trench, “where the Nazca’s plate subduction under the South American plate is located (which is what causes major earthquakes), the system will monitor the events that are occurring in that area, thus placing us in a significant position when it comes to the study of the deep sea.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Daniel Melnick, professor at the Austral University of Chile and director of Cyclo Millennium Nucleus, emphasized the importance of this achievement by noting, “The technological challenge that needs to be surmounted in order to install such a massive instrumental network will pay off in the acquisition of very important unheard-of knowledge, especially that which is linked to the potential development of a tsunami early warning system, which would be a significant watershed both for marine geophysics and the other disciplines related to the project.” On top of that, Dr. Melnick added, “One of the most remarkable aspects of this project is its interdisciplinary character. Neither should we forget the great network of international contributors taking part in it.”

Dr. Juan Díaz, professor at the School of Marine Sciences of the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, pointed out the “marvelous opportunity that it is for professors and students to have access to deep-sea observation technologies. This will result in greater motivation among students, especially when we consider the worldwide health crisis we are facing today.” Additionally, Dr. Díaz noted “the importance of being able to observe crust deformations produced by seismic cycles,” an aspect that will be studied in more depth thanks to this new piece of equipment. Lastly, Dr. Díaz remarked, “the various instruments that will be installed in the deep sea will make it possible to correlate several variables in order to verify the relation among different processes, many of which have probably not been described yet.”

In the final analysis, just like Dr. Osvaldo Ulloa, professor at the University of Concepción and IMO’s director, points out, “this observing system will place Chile at the world’s forefront of deep-sea research, not only in connection with oceanography but also with seismology.”


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