Nepal’s earthquake was not unexpected from the scientific point of view. So what to do about it in your opinion, how to attract attention to what scientists are saying, maybe also to avoid future tragedies? Read few comments.
Ben van der Pluijm, Professor of Geology, Professor of the Environment, Editor-in-Chief, Earth’s Future, University of Michigan
You raise a very important issue. I don’t think that people are not listening to science, but society seeks specifics that science often cannot deliver. The location and recurrence of (large) EQs is well-known, as well as their destructive power (“energy release”), but the exact date when it happens is not. What science offer as well, which society should pay more attention to, is understanding the impact once something adverse happens. For example, a large EQ, like Nepal’s, has destructive powers for buildings, unless they are EQ proof. Brick building are often not. Also, large EQ in mountainous regions will likely cause landslides, affecting downslope areas (and climbers/hikers). All these impacts tragically happened as predicted, except that we could not predict the exact time toward offering societal security.
Larry Ruff, Professor of Seismology, University of Michigan
Your question goes straight to the key issue facing people around the world: “How to mitigate earthquakes?” Here is the simple, but correct, answer: “Build better buildings!”
There is a well-known saying in seismology & earthquake engineering (this quote is widely attributed to Charles Richter, though that may not be exactly true) “Earthquakes do not kill people, Buildings do.” Just for the sake of completeness, in addition to the main hazard of building and infrastructure failure (e.g. bridges, pipelines, etc.) the other two main earthquake hazards are landslides & tsunamis.
In more detail, the highest ground accelerations above the hypocenter of the largest earthquakes can not, repeat NOT, directly hurt you. These accelerations are typically about 1 to 2 “g” (“g” is gravitational acceleration at Earth’s surface, 9.8 m/sec^2). Many people ride “roller coasters” and other entertainment rides that subject your body to far higher accelerations. So if you are lying in the middle of flat field, with no possibility of landslides nor tsunami waves, then the earthquake shaking poses NO direct harmful effects. While the human body, dogs, trees, birds, etc., can withstand the horizontal ground accelerations of a large earthquake, many of our buildings can NOT. The above basic facts are well-known, the difficult part is to change our construction practices. In general, all people build buildings as cheaply as possible. In many parts of the world, this means using rocks and dirt (in the form of bricks), and then just stacking them up with no further reinforcement. This is the worst possible construction style for resistance to earthquakes. People have been using this style for thousands of years, and earthquakes have been destroying this type of structure for thousands of years. To change this style generally makes the structures more expensive. Earthquake Civil Engineers are the experts on structures & earthquake shaking — they know how to design better buildings, bridges, etc., but how to implement?
Mark Allen, Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham
As we research the geology of these earthquake prone areas we understand more and more about how they work. You are right that the Nepal earthquake was not unexpected, in that scientists have long since realised that the Himalayas will generate major earthquakes because of the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates. But, whilst we can forecast the likelihood of earthquakes in general terms, we are still a long way from being able to make a meaningful prediction about exactly when and where the next event will happen. This is not to say tat we will never be able to make such predictions, only that it is not possible in the foreseeable future.
What can be done is to increase the state of preparedness of a society. Part of this sounds very simple: to make sure that building codes factor in the effects of damaging earthquakes, and to make sure that they are applied. But, enforcing such codes is not necessarily simple, and it is particularly hard to “retrofit” buildings already there. There are other things that can be done too, for instance it is critical to have rapid response plans for the recovery and treatment of casualties. Finally, there is a role for public education: for example, if an earthquake hits, what should you do? Do you stay indoors or run for the nearest open places?
Mathias Raschke, Independent Researcher with expertise in Geoscience, Engineering, Mathematics
There is only two ways to manage the earthquake risk: either to do not live and build in endangered areas or to build earthquake resistant constructions. Latter is limited by the economic conditions. Additionally, there is more than only one peril. There are further hazards such as rock burst or flood.
Robert Yeats, Professor Emeritus, Oregon State University
Scientists have known that the area west of Kathmandu was in a seismic gap, and considered this area more likely than others for a big earthquake. We weren’t able to confirm the time of the next earthquake, and so it came as a surprise. The earthquake struck the plate boundary, and this led to its large magnitude. Although the epicenter was between Kathmandu and Pokhara, earthquake directivity focused the strong shaking east of the epicenter, around Kathmandu. Much of the damage and loss of life was to historical buildings that had not been reinforced against strong ground motion. New buildings fared much better.