Fourteen scientists are quietly working on a Utah earthquake forecasting project that will provide the most specific estimates ever of when and where major temblors are expected along the Wasatch Front.
"I don't want to say [these projections] will revolutionize but they are going to bring a great deal of more focused attention to the earthquake hazard in Utah," said Bill Lund, senior scientist at the Utah Geological Survey.
The results, expected to be released next year, "will put some real numbers on" Utah earthquake probabilities within given time frames, as has been done in the past quarter century by California.
For instance, the most recent forecast in the Bay Area (2008) projects a two out of three chance of a 6.7 magnitude or greater quake within 30 years, said Ivan Wong, an Oakland, Calif., seismologist and chairman of the working group on Utah earthquake probability.
"The idea in Utah was that we felt we now had enough data on the Wasatch Fault to do what they do in California ... forecast when the next major quake might hit along the Wasatch."
Wong is a vice president of URS Corp., an environmental engineering company, and a University of Utah alumnus.
He said the main goal of the project is to motivate people to take serious steps to prepare for the big one.
"If a large earthquake were to hit Salt Lake City right now, people would be surprised about the level of losses we're going to sustain," Wong said.
"There will be casualties from the collapse of buildings in Salt Lake City, hospitals will be overwhelmed, if not damaged, and we're concerned about schools," he said. "There are a lot of vulnerable schools along the Wasatch Front."
One of the biggest concerns of those charged with preparing for earthquakes is the large number of older brick buildings (unreinforced masonry structures) in Utah.
The collapse of structures built before 1975 is expected to be a "leading cause of injury and deaths, and we have a boatload of them in the state and in Salt Lake County," said Bob Carey, operations chief for Utah emergency management.
The calculations are chilling. A magnitude 7-plus quake centered in Salt Lake County is likely to kill up to 3,000 people and result in another 3,000 to 6,000 life-threatening injuries, Carey said.
Property damage reaching into as many as nine counties would run an estimated $50 billion to $70 billion.
While he is an advocate of earthquake research, public awareness and training, Carey, a geologist, is skeptical about the usefulness of the planned quake forecasts.
"They're not going to be terribly impressive because of the major time frames," said Carey, referring to the hundreds of years between major events in Utah.
The basin-and-range geology here is so much different than in California where the borders of shifting plates in the Earth's crust cause more frequent large quakes that the type of forecasting refined in the Golden State doesn't translate well.
But Lund, of the Utah Geological Survey, sees it differently.
He believes the forecasting project should go a long way toward helping guide practical planning and preparation.
Now, leaders look to more general warnings that the Wasatch Fault is overdue for a big quake, he said. "What the heck is a decisionmaker supposed to do with that?"
But, Lund says, give mayors and other local leaders more concrete forecasts and "then all of a sudden they've got things to start making decisions on. â¦ It should greatly aid risk reduction in Utah and should result in some major advances."
Wong believes the biggest value of making time-dependent quake forecasts is spurring residents to prepare for a catastrophic seismic event.
"Families in particular need to be prepared for when the earthquake happens," he said.
That means having supplies of water and food, emergency first-aid kits, flashlights and making plans for what happens if children or other family members are separated with no means of communication.
"The old mantra is you'll be on your own for the next 72 hours, but overall that's probably overly optimistic," Wong said.
The forecasting project funded by the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program is an outgrowth of a unique, award-winning research effort in Utah.
The approach involves 60 to 100 scientists from a variety of disciplines, government agencies, universities and industry who gather annually in what are essentially brainstorming sessions.
The researchers are broken into three working groups: one dealing with active faults, another with ground shaking, and a third with liquefaction.
Key scientists present their latest research on select topics, compare what's been done to the research that's most needed, and then set priorities for the coming year.
The process, launched in 2003, and the research it produced earned the Utah Geological Survey the 2012 National Award in Excellence for Research.
The honor was presented April 10 at the National Earthquake Conference in Memphis.