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California experiment could lose funding

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POSTED September 2, 2014 5:56 p.m.

PASO ROBLES  (AP) — Scientists seeking to put seismic sensors deep in the San Andreas fault to study the mechanics of earthquakes are in danger of losing their funding, a newspaper reported.

The National Science Foundation has said it is no longer soliciting proposals for experiments connected to the project, the San Jose Mercury News reported. But the agency says it will review its decision in the winter, and scientists are trying to win back its support.

The project near the rural, unincorporated Monterey County community of Parkfield, which is about 30 miles northeast of Paso Robles, seeks to put the seismic sensors about 2 miles in the ground and understand how an earthquake starts and stops.

Whether there are signals before it occurs and what controls its timing and strength. The roughly 800-mile San Andreas fault is extremely active and has been blamed for the 1906 quake that led to devastating fires in San Francisco and leveled much of the city and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which also caused damage in San Francisco.

Scientists have already spent $25 million drilling one borehole around Parkfield and have installed temporary instrumentation. But they still need millions more to install a permanent observatory in the ground and drill a second hole, the Mercury News reported.

James Whitcomb, who heads the National Science Foundation’s deep-earth processes section in Arlington, Virginia, said funding is highly competitive, and the cost of the single observatory experiment could support several smaller, worthy projects.

But the scientists behind the project say they are not giving up.

“There are challenges, but we need to finish the job,” said Steve Hickman, a geophysicist with Menlo Park’s U.S. Geological Survey. “What we learn will help us understand the physical processes controlling earthquake generation around the world.”

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