The ‘night­mare’ ev­ery­one saw com­ing

When earth­quake spe­cial­ists gath­ered in Nepal’s cap­i­tal city of Kathmandu last week for a sem­i­nar on how to bet­ter pre­pare for a “a night­mare wait­ing to hap­pen”, they had no idea how soon dis­as­ter would strike the coun­try, re­ports Christo­pher Davis from

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Dur­ing the week of April 19, seis­mol­o­gists from around the world met in Kathmandu, the cap­i­tal city of Nepal, to talk about what one sci­en­tist called “a night­mare wait­ing to hap­pen”. It was right un­der their feet.

The sci­en­tists knew there was an over­whelm­ing amount of costly work that needed to be done to pre­pare the poor, con­gested, over­built city for the next big earth­quake. And they felt cer­tain they were rac­ing against Na­ture’s capri­cious clock.

They were. Just be­fore noon on the fol­low­ing Satur­day a 7.8-mag­ni­tude earth­quake struck, bury­ing peo­ple in col­lapsed ma­sonry and land­slides, top­pling trea­sured shrines, un­leash­ing avalanches that wiped out climbers on Mount Ever­est (known as Mount Qo­molangma in China) and wreak­ing the kind of calami­tous havoc the sci­en­tists had feared. And knew was com­ing.

It’s called the In­dus-Yar­lung su­ture zone, the in­ter­face of two con­ti­nents — In­dia and Asia — butting heads, with In­dia be­ing forced be­neath China, sub­ducted into the role of build­ing the Hi­malayan moun­tain range.

The process has been go­ing on for 45 mil­lion years and pro­ceeds at a stop-and-go pace of about 2 cen­time­ters a year, roughly the pace that hu­man hair and nails grow, but not as steadily. It’s a jolt for­ward fol­lowed by a rest pe­riod that builds up the com­pres­sion for the next jolt.

The slight lurch for­ward is an earth­quake and since 1255 AD, records kept in the re­gion show that a ma­jor quake of mag­ni­tude 8 or above has hap­pened about ev­ery 75 years. The last one in 1934, mea­sur­ing 8.1, killed nearly 11,000 peo­ple and de­stroyed 40 per­cent of the build­ings in the area.

Kathmandu has changed a lot in the 81 years since then. But the teem­ing me­trop­o­lis of shod­dily con­structed build­ings wouldn’t stand a chance against a tem­blor. Even a quake less than the over­due mag­ni­tude 8 would prob­a­bly pro­duce num­bers worse than 1934’s tragedy.

“Sim­ply ap­ply­ing the per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion killed or in­jured in the 1934 earth­quake to the pop­u­la­tion of the [Kathmandu] Val­ley to­day re­sults in an es­ti­mate of 22,000 deaths and 25,000 in­juries re­quir­ing hos­pi­tal­iza­tion,” said a 1998 re­port by the US-based NGO Geo­Haz­ards In­ter­na­tional. “Ap­ply­ing more re­cent earth­quake casualty fig­ures from cities com­pa­ra­ble to the Kathmandu Val­ley re­sults in an es­ti­mate of 40,000 deaths and 95,000 in­juries in the [val­ley’s] nest earth­quake.” In­evitable ques­tions

As the body count con­tin­ues to mount in Nepal, the in­evitable ques­tions were raised. Why is it we can be sure where an earth­quake will strike but not know when? Are we any closer to be­ing able to read the tick­ing clock on Na­ture’s time bombs?

Ben van der Pluijm, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, spe­cial­izes in what he de­scribes as the in­ter­face of ge­ol­ogy and so­ci­ety, and preaches the re­silience of hu­man­ity in the face of the most abrupt and ad­verse change brought on by earth­quakes, vol­canic erup­tions and storms. Ge­ol­ogy, to him, tells a whole lot about what might take place, but not enough.

For sev­eral decades, science has had a good un­der­stand­ing of where to ex­pect ma­jor earth­quakes to oc­cur, he said. The ev­i­dence and events link up “very tidily with plate tec­ton­ics, where we find 99 per­cent of all th­ese events are re­lated to what we call plate bound­aries, where two plates are mov­ing rel­a­tive to each other. Ge­o­log­i­cally we have found a re­mark­able pat­tern that ex­plains the oc­cur­rence of th­ese par­tic­u­lar events,” he said.

Very large earth­quakes like the one that hit Nepal have a kind of sys­tem, he ex­plained. They aren’t very com­mon to begin with — only a hand­ful — three to five — are ex­pected each year, but they are dis­as­trous when they oc­cur in pop­u­lated ar­eas.

Nepal is

in a

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that

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