Instruments from the Redmond firm Paroscientific are the backbone of Japan’s seafloor-monitoring programs, but aren’t widely used in the Northwest.
Seattle Times science reporter
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
Jerry Paros holds an accelerometer for seismic and tilt measurements in his left hand and an earthquake sensor for tsunami measurements in his right.
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Sandi Doughton’s reporting in Japan was underwritten by a fellowship from the Japan Foreign Press Center.
The irony isn’t lost on Jerry Paros.
His Redmond-based company has produced almost 1,000 sensors for monitoring the seafloor off Japan, but only a handful of the instruments are keeping watch on the submarine fault in his own backyard.
“It’s outrageous that we should not be better prepared,” said Paros, who started the business in his home in 1972. Today, Paroscientificis considered the premier source in the world for precision pressure gauges.
The deep-sea submersible Alvin tracks its depth with Paroscientific sensors. The National Weather Service relies on the company’s barometers. Oil companies use Paroscientific instruments to level offshore-drilling platforms and estimate the volume of petroleum reservoirs.
Tsunami and earthquake monitoring account for less than 1 percent of the company’s $20 million in annual sales — but early warning has become a passion for Paros.
He endowed a University of Washington professorship — held by oceanographer John Delaney — and recently donated $1 million in seed money to lay the groundwork for a Cascadia sensor-network initiative.
Paros envisions a system like those off Japan, with a cable backbone running from Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino in California, and lateral arms covering much of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
There’s already an array of buoys stationed offshore that uses Paroscientific pressure sensors to detect tsunamis. That system is great at warning of waves from distant earthquakes. But the buoys won’t help much in the case of a Cascadia megaquake, which will send surges crashing into some coastal communities in 20 minutes or less.
“The last one was in 1700, so we’re getting close to a repeat,” Paros said.
He’s working to improve the precision of his instruments along with their ability to detect subtle deformation of the seafloor over long periods of time — and not with profit in mind.
“There’s not much business incentive to develop these types of sensors,” he said. “But it’s interesting, and it’s clear that the scientists need better tools.”
Paros and his team went through more than 100 designs before they came up with a sensor that could withstand the intense pressure on the seafloor. He keeps several of the flops on display in a room he calls the “museum of mistakes and occasional good ideas.”
“I’m going to have to build an extension for the mistakes,” Paros joked.
But his latest generation of sensors clearly falls into the “good ideas” category. They’re so sensitive they can detect a change in the water column of a millimeter or less.
Paros just hopes they can be put to work in the Northwest before the subduction zone rips again.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “our government tends to fund things after the fact.”