Research trip to Japan becomes emotional for OSU prof

Professor Scott Ashford measures ground upheaval following a large earthquake in Japan. (photo courtesy GEER)

Oregon State Professor Scott Ashford has just returned from a research trip to Japan, where he and a team of engineers saw first hand the effects of the massive Tohoku earthquake, and experienced the emotional upheaval of a country in crisis.

Ashford has traveled around the world responding to major quakes with the Geo-technical Extreme Event Reconnaissance (GEER) team, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In the past year he’s been to Chile, New Zealand, and just last week he was documenting the damage in the Tohoku earthquake alongside Japanese engineers.

“Our mission is to get word out to the scientific community about what’s happened on the ground,” he said.

When a major earthquake strikes somewhere in the world, Ashford is immediately alerted, and gets ready at a moment’s notice to rush to the scene. As head of the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University, he is interested in soil changes following an earthquake.

The GEER team always pairs up with researchers from the country where they’re working. This not only helps them with cultural and language issues, but allows them to be guided by the hosting country’s scientists as to where it’s appropriate, and safe, to conduct their research. It is also a great way to foster international collaboration.

“You can develop strong personal bonds with someone spending a week together in the car doing an earthquake reconnaissance,” Ashford said. And it is those personal relationships that make the follow-up research collaboration possible.

During his recent trip, Ashford had to balance his own emotional reactions to the devastation. While in Japan, a colleague from there showed him a video that hasn’t been aired on television. It was a shot of the water level rising on the Japanese coast as witnesses gathered on the shore, unaware of the danger. In a flash, the tsunami waves hit the coast, obliterating everything, and everyone, standing on the shore.

“I started crying,” Ashford said. “It was very emotional to see that.”

In Japan, Ashford was photographing and measuring small landslides caused by liquefaction during the recent quake. The evidence of liquefaction was evident more than a 100 miles from the quake’s epicenter, “which may be further away than we’ve ever seen it,” Ashford said.

In order to gather evidence of liquefaction, Ashford and his team looked for sand boils (small sand volcanoes) and lateral spreads, that is, shallow landslides triggered by liquefaction. Although they arrived only two weeks after the initial quake, cleanup was already taking place, erasing evidence in some locations, which is why GEER teams are sent in quickly after a major event.

“The data is very perishable,” he said. But the more evidence they can gather about how soil has altered during an earthquake, the better engineers will be at predicting the outcomes of future quakes.

Heading to Japan carried some unique risks, as news of the earthquake and tsunami was quickly overshadowed by the nuclear crisis there. But Ashford said he depended on the expertise of his own university to keep him safe. He contacted Kathryn Higley, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiation Health Physics, who assured him that he’d be safe if he stayed out of the restricted zone near the reactor.

Ashford usually travels light. He brings a camera, a GPS unit, a tape measure and a meter stick. He also makes sure to be self-sufficient into locations where resources are scarce, in order to not use up food and water that could be used for disaster victims.

While the opportunity to conduct research in a virtual living laboratory can be exciting, Ashford never loses sight of the fact that he’s a guest in a country that has just undergone an extremely devastating natural disaster.

On occasions when he’s accompanied by younger faculty, he advises them not to express excitement at discoveries when they’re in the field following an earthquake, in order to be respectful of those who have lived through the disaster.

“We’re amongst people who have had their lives ruined and are in upheaval,” he said. “Even though it’s exciting to see the things we’ve been doing research on in action, you can’t show any of that. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.”

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