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Tony Wilk

Geology Feature Story
Mike Underwood

Growing up in Lodi, California, just south of Sacramento, Mike Underwood had

aspirations of becoming a marine biologist. It wasn’t until he began his undergraduate

career at University of California - Santa Cruz that he realized that he wanted to be a

geologist instead.

“Once I got into my freshman year at the University of California, I discovered

that I didn’t really like biology very much, and I didn’t really like biologists very much,”

Underwood said.

After taking a geology class, he was drawn to the basic approach of looking at

how the earth has evolved and the “processes that govern at the earth’s surface,” as well

as the other geology students at the university, many of whom enjoyed the outdoors as

much as he did. Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, Underwood

earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University.

He has been teaching in the Department of Geological Sciences at MU since

1982. MU was one of many places that offered him a position in sedimentology.

Underwood said the size of the city and whether or not it was a good place to raise kids

were important factors in where he decided to take a job.

In addition to teaching, Underwood is currently working on the biggest project in

the history of marine geology, called the Nankai Trough Seismogenic Zone Experiment,

aka NanTroSEIZE. He estimates that around 250 scientists from all over of the world

have contributed to the experiment, with the main organizers being Japanese and

American scientists. Underwood is on the development board for the experiment.

The project involves drilling deep into the Nankai Trough, off the coast of Japan.

The deepest that those working on the project have drilled thus far is over 3,000 meters

below the seafloor, Underwood said.

“What we’re trying to do is actually penetrate through a fault at a depth where

earthquakes are occurring and sample the fault zone and ultimately install instruments

that can monitor the behavior of the fault through earthquake cycle,” Underwood said.

The fault in which they have been drilling has a history of producing earthquakes

with magnitudes of eight and greater, as well as tsunamis. Eventually, the instruments

will be placed into the plate boundary and will allow scientists to try to anticipate the

likelihood of events similar to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 on

Japan’s northeastern coast. Forecasting such activity will help minimize harm to those in

affected areas.

Underwood and the rest of the scientists involved are trying to conclude the

project, but budget limitations, including a lack of government funding, are keeping that

from happening. As a result, a completion date is uncertain at this point.

“I’m on the project management team and we meet every once in a while, but

there are also long periods of time where we don’t get updates,” Underwood said.

“Resumption of the really deep drilling is probably not going to happen until late 2016

into the spring of 2017.”

For more information on Mike Underwood and his research, please visit