Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Studying the aftermath of an earthquake

An estimated 500,000 Chilean homes were severely damaged by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake of Feb. 27.

Anne Meltzer, world-renowned seismologist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has studied earthquakes in the Himalayas, the western United States, the Caribbean Sea and South America.

So it came as no surprise when she was asked to travel to Chile in the wake of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the Andean nation Feb. 27.

Devastating seismic events, says Meltzer, prompt seismologists to step up their research efforts in hopes of uncovering new information that can mitigate the hazards of earthquakes to come.

Meltzer, a professor of earth and environmental sciences, was tapped by Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), an academic consortium of 100 institutions funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), to travel with a team to investigate the aftermath of Chile’s recent 8.8 magnitude earthquake.

Meltzer is a former chair of IRIS’s executive committee. With funding from NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, her team deployed instruments to digitally record aftershocks from the earthquake.

Valuable data from aftershocks

“Within the seismology community there’s always been a response to put instruments into the ground after a large event,” says Meltzer. “Aftershocks decay in frequency and magnitude over time so it’s important to deploy the instrument quickly.”

Collaborating with scientists from the University of Chile in Santiago, Meltzer’s team deployed 58 stations in 10 days by inserting seismometers and accelerometers into the ground throughout the rupture region. According to IRIS, 142 aftershocks occurred during the first five days following the quake, but the aftershock sequence will continue for many months, offering valuable data to researchers.

The data from the stations will be recorded to disk over the next six months. Another team will return to Chile in May to set up telemetry systems to retrieve some of the data in real-time using cell phone modems and the internet. The data will be placed in public archives for further research.

“This is a new era of cooperation,” Meltzer says of the international efforts. “This will provide important data for looking at earthquake physics and rupture processes. The hope is that the more we learn, the more we can mitigate the hazards associated with these large earthquakes.”

Mitigating the damage from future earthquakes

Although the magnitude of the Chile earthquake was considerably higher than the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti—8.8 to 7.2, respectively—Meltzer says the greater devastation and loss of life in Haiti show how advanced preparation can offset the natural forces of an earthquake.

“Earthquake monitoring is an essential component of hazard analysis. We can use this knowledge to impact building codes and shape policy,” she says. “Given that earthquakes are going to happen, there’s a lot we can do.”

As a seismologist, Meltzer conducts research in countries such as Tibet, Pakistan and Ecuador. She will utilize the data from Chile for her own research. She believes the public access will provide a unique opportunity for other researchers to understand earthquake physics such as the rupture, subduction and volcanic processes.

While Meltzer focused her time in Chile on instrument deployment, she was never far from the devastation caused by the earthquake. Many of the best locations for instruments were near homes, schools and farms, and the Chilean people were eager to help the researchers.

“It’s a beautiful country. The people are warm and friendly and very interested in our work,” says Meltzer. “There were places where the entire community was wiped away. It was sobering, but the people are remarkable and very resilient.”


Story by Tricia Long

Posted on Thursday, April 15, 2010

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