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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Simulated Shake

A Magnitude 8.0 earthquake has just ruptured the entire southern San Andreas fault. It is an area with a population of 25 million that extends as far south as Yuma, Arizona, and Ensenada, Mexico, and runs up through Southern California as far north as Fresno. Or to be more precise, researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego, in a partnership with the University of Southern California, San Diego State and Ohio State, have created the largest earthquake simulation ever.

"This simulation represents a milestone calculation, a breakthrough in seismology both in terms of computational size and scalability," says Yifeng Cui, a computational scientist at SDSC and lead author of Scalable Earthquake Simulation on Petascale Supercomputers. "And it opens up new territory for earthquake science and engineering with the goal of reducing the potential for loss of life and property."

The simulation, funded through numerous National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, represents the latest in seismic science on several levels, as well as for computations at the petascale level, which refers to supercomputers capable of more than one quadrillion calculations, per second.

"The level of detail in this simulation has allowed us to observe things that we were not able to see in the past," says Kim Olsen, professor of geological sciences at SDSU, and lead seismologist of the study. "For example, the simulation has allowed us to gain more accurate insight into the nature of the shaking expected from a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault."

Olsen, who cautioned that this massive simulation is just one of many possible scenarios that could actually occur, also noted that high-rise buildings are more susceptible to the low-frequency, or a roller-coaster-like motion, while the smaller structures usually suffer more damage from the higher-frequency shaking, which feels more like a series of sudden jolts. In addition to Cui, other SDSC researchers on the project include Amit Chourasia, Kwangyoon Lee and Jun Zhou.

óJan Zverina