|This map shows all earthquakes in southern Chile over the last 100 years with magnitudes larger than 5.5. Until Saturday, the area around Concepcion had much fewer quakes than the rest of coastal Chile. The yellow star depicts the epicenter of the most recent 8.8 temblor. (Map courtesy of USGS)|
The huge earthquake, which on Saturday devastated large areas of Chile, was the largest temblor anywhere on Earth in more than five years. With a magnitude of 8.8, it was about 30 percent smaller than the great Sumatra earthquake of December 28, 2004, but also almost one thousand times more energy than the last destructive temblor in our area, the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989.
Like the Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010, this great Chilean earthquake was not unexpected. Here is why: The entire Pacific coast of South America is prone to very large earthquakes, because it defines the collision zone of the westward moving South American plate and the eastbound Nazca Plate. These plates move toward each other at a rate of almost 3.2 inches per year. The South American plate is continental and carries all of Latin America south of the Isthmus of Panama. The Nazca-Plate underlies most of the southeastern Pacific Ocean and, like all oceanic plates, it is much denser than a continental plate. Due to this density difference, the Nazca-Plate is pushed under by the South American Plate by the collision and dives into the Earth's mantle. In the region of the epicenter of Saturday's quake, the angle under which the Nazca Plate subducts beneath South America is about 27 degrees.
As the oceanic plates dives, it tries to take the leading edge of South America with it, thereby bending it downwards. As continental crustal rocks are neither plastic nor elastic, but rather brittle, the bending causes an enormous strain in the rocks of the westernmost South American plate. Finally the bending continues so far that the strain exceeds the strength of the rock. It then breaks and the bending edge of the plate snaps back. This happens extremely quickly and results in huge earthquake - as we saw on Saturday.
However, not all areas affected by the subduction of the Nazca-Plate snap back at the same time. During the last century, regions along most of Chile's 2000 mile long coastline experienced such a snap back in the form of a huge earthquake. Seismologists counted at least four quakes with magnitudes larger than 8 and countless temblors between 7.0 and 7.9. In fact, the largest temblor ever measured occurred just 200 miles south of Saturday's epicenter, when on May 22, 1960, the Earth shook in a magnitude 9.5 earthquake.
The only region along Chile's coast which has been an exception, and had not experienced a major quake in the last hundred years, was the coastal area of Concepcion. And this is exactly, where Saturday's "terremoto" hit with its devastating effects. (hra052)
|Port-au-Prince Harbor after the earthquake (photo by Eduardo Fierro)|
We all have seen the pictures of the dead, the shots of the devastation and moving reports about the suffering after the earthquake, which struck Haiti on January 12. The Haitian government estimates that at least 150,000 people have perished in the disaster and that more than 800,000 people have become homeless. Aid organizations estimate the number of dead to be higher, over 200,000, and put the homeless count at more than one million. Whatever the final numbers, one thing is clear already: This temblor was certainly the most devastating magnitude 7 earthquake in human history. Keep in mind that on average around 15 quakes of similar magnitude occur every year - and only a few of them cause severe damage and deaths (see blog September 14, 2008).
Why, one has to ask, did the quake under the Haiti cause such an unfathomable disaster? "It didn't have to be that bad," says Eduardo Fierro a structural engineer with the firm BFP Engineers, Inc., based in Berkeley. Fierro goes one step further when he postulates: "This was not an earthquake disaster, this was a building disaster." Fierro came to this opinion after spending one week in western Haiti immediately after the earthquake struck. He wanted to find out, why this quake caused such extreme damage to the island's buildings and infrastructure. His conclusion: In most cases, the buildings were neither designed nor constructed to withstand even the slightest lateral shaking. All over the capital, Port-au-Prince, and in the epicentral town of Leogane, he inspected collapsed buildings - and the picture was always the same: the rebars were much too thin, interconnections between them were missing, and concrete was of poor quality. Not only the ramshackle houses in the slums were constructed that way. Two of the biggest public buildings in Haiti, the Presidential Palace and the University in Leogane, were also not designed with earthquakes in mind and consequently collapsed in the shaking more than two weeks ago.
|The cathedral in Leogane was completely destroyed. (Photo by Eduardo Fierro)|
Fierro recently presented his findings to structural and earthquake engineers in a special seminar on Campus. His saddest observation: He saw some people in Port-au-Prince starting to rebuild their home. That they were collecting intact cinderblocks from collapsed buildings and walls was understandable, Fierro said. But that these people were again using flimsy rebars and cement mixed with salty sand from the beach, almost broke his heart. "They are setting themselves up for the next devastating disaster", he said. Fierro's trip was partially funded by the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) on UC Berkeley's campus, which also allowed the blogger to use two of his pictures. (hra051)
|Enriquillo Plaintain Garden fault landform SSW of Port-au-Prince (Image from Google Maps)|
One of the reasons, that the massive relief effort after Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti is only very slowly getting into high gear, is the fact, that many roads are impassable and numerous bridges are destroyed. First responders and rescue teams use satellite images to assess the destruction and accessibility of various neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince and in the outlying towns and villages. In addition, the view from space also helps Earth scientists to gain insight into the tectonic movements, which caused the earth crust to break so violently on Hispaniola.
As described in Wednesday's blog, the focus of Tuesday's magntiude 7 temblor lay at a depth of 8 miles on the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault, which cuts through the southern section of Hispaniola. It runs along an almost straight East-West trending line through the mountains southwest of Port-au-Prince. The fault scarp is clearly visible in the satellite picture (Figure 1), which was taken last year from an imaging satellite. If you zoom in on it, you can see that the scarp is actually a linear valley with a stream running through it.
|Figure 2: Three-dimensional elevation model of the region around Port au Prince. The mountains are not snow-capped, rather the color is an indication of the elevation (green low, white high). (Image from Jet Propulsion Laboratory)|
This scarp is also clearly visible on the maps which Nasa created from the data gathered by the Space Shuttle Radar Topography mission. During several flights of the Space Shuttle an automatic radar camera took pictures of the Earth's surface underneath the Shuttle's orbit. For each spot, two pictures were taken from slightly different angles. Various computer codes can be used to combine the two images. Figure 2 shows a three dimensional map of the region around Port-au-Prince under an oblique view from the northwest. The scarp in the mountains is the prominent feature in the center of the image (white arrow). Figure 3 shows a different combination of the two radar images from Haiti. They were merged into an anaglyph. If you happen to have a pair of those crazy 3-D glasses handy, (red for left eye, cyan for the right), you will also clearly see the fault.
In the meantime, Gavin Hayes from the USGS's National Earthquake Information Center in Boulder, CO, has used dozens of seismic recordings to compute the actual movement along the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault. According to his calculations, the fault ruptured exactly underneath the visible scarp over a length of approximately 25 miles. It broke in a left-lateral movement, as indicated by the arrows in figure 3. Within roughly 15 seconds, the northern block had shifted by almost 9 feet to the left, while the southern block had moved a similar distance to the right, resulting in a total fault slip of about 18 feet. Such values are typical for a magnitude 7 quake. During the Bay Area's 1989 Loma Prieta shaker the San Andreas Fault ruptured over a length of approximately 22 miles. (hra050)
|Figure 3: Radar anaglyph image of the Port-au-Prince area. Red arrows indicated the direction of plate movement.(Image from Jet Propulsion Laboratory)|
|Figure 1: Map showing the tectonics of the Caribbean Region (Click to view larger image.)|
The devastating earthquake, which shook the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and a large area of the Greater Antilles on Tuesday afternoon, may have cost tens of thousands of lifes. Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince was particularly hard hit, because the distance from the focus of the shallow quake to the city center was less than 12 miles. Tuesday's quake had a magnitude of 7.0, which makes it comparable in size to the the last big temblor in the Bay Area, the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 (see blog 16 October 2009).
The Caribbean region, often sold by tourism promoters as "tropical paradise", is no stranger to natural disasters. Four hurricanes made landfall in Haiti alone during the 2008 season, causing widespread destruction. In addition, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are almost daily occurences, because most Caribbean islands lie close to a major plate boundary. In this region, the giant westward drifting North American Plate encounters the much smaller Caribbean Plate, resulting in a complex pattern of interaction. In the eastern region this plate collision leads to the formation of a subduction zone, which in turn gives rise to the gentle arc of the Lesser Antilles. As in many other subduction zones most of these islands are of volcanic origin. During the last 15 years the almost continuous eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano has destroyed more than half of the island of Montserrat. A gigantic explosion of Mont Pelée volcano on Martinique in 1902 cost more than 65000 lives.
|Figure 2: Faults on the Island of Hispaniola|
The northern part of the plate boundary lies close to the islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola und Jamaica. There the plates rub against each other horizontally, very similar to the plate movement which governs California. But while the relative motion along the major faults in our state is right-lateral, North America slides westwards with respect to the Caribbean, resulting in a left-lateral movement along the fault (see black arrows in figure 1).
While this fault line is clearly defined by a deep sea trench near Puerto Rico, the boundary zone is much wider under Hispaniola. The larger Septentrional Fault runs along the north coast of the island, while a secondary fault system, the so called "Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault" cuts through the southern part (see figure 2). Tuesday's quake was the first big temblor to occur on this fault since 1860. It is also likely that the very large temblor, which devastated the Jamaican city of Port Royal (now Kingston) in 1692, occured on a western extension of this fault system.
One of the reasons for the wide spread damage of Tuesday's quake are the poor construction practices in Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country. Even the Presidential Palace, the Parliament Building and the headquarters of the UN peace keepers in Port-au-Prince were destroyed, and so were many schools and hospitals in several towns in the western part of Haiti. (hra049)
Updated January 17th, 2010
|Almost ten earthquakes with magntitudes of 6.0 and larger occured in the greater region of the Mendocino Triple Junction along California's North Coast during the last 30 years. The offshore epicenter of Saturday's quake is marked in red.|
The magnitude 6.5 earthquake, which shook large portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon during the late afternoon of 9 January 2010, was the strongest temblor to hit our state in more than six years. The last strong earthquake occured shortly before Christmas in 2003, when a magnitude 6.6 quake rattled the area around Hearst Castle, the Paso Robles Region and the coastal towns of San Luis Obispo County. Two people were killed in the San Simeon Earthquake, as the 2003 temblor is now known. It caused widespread structural damage in Paso Robles, where several buildings collapsed. In contrast, only a few people were injured in Saturday's quake. The damage was largely confined to coastal cities in Humboldt County. A report by the Redwood Coast Tsunami Workgroup describes damage to residential and commercial buildings, as well as to roads and other infrastructure totaling almost $30 million.
While the North Coast escaped major damage this time, the region between Cape Mendocino and the Oregon border sure had its share of deadly quakes in the last half century. One person was killed on December 21, 1954, when a magnitude 6.5 temblor struck a few miles East of Arcata. On November 8, 1980 a 7.2 quake occured off the coast of Humboldt County. Two people were injured, when portions of on overpass of Highway 101 collapsed on the train tracks below. A whole series of strong quakes, ranging in magntiude between 7.2 and 6.5 rattled the area in late April 1992. Ninetyfive people were injured and the shaking caused major damage and several landslides in and near the towns of Ferndale, Honeydew, Petrolia, Rio Dell, and Scotia. The strongest of these Petrolia Earthquakes, as the series is now commnonly known, generated a tsunami, with wave heights of up to four feet in Crescent City. Hours later, this tsunami was even detected in Hawaii, where it had a run-up of less than a foot. The last strong earthquake in this area occured on June 15, 2005, when a magnitude 7.2 temblor rattled the sea floor roughly 100 miles offshore. Although the quake was felt in Humboldt County, no damage occured on land.
Taken all of these larger earthquake and the thousands of smaller ones together, the region around Cape Mendocino has a very clear distiction among seismologists. When measured by the release of seismic energy, it is in fact the most active region of California, beating by far the active faults of the Bay Area and the seismically notorious Los Angeles Basin and its surrounding mountains. Read why the Mendocino Triple Junction makes the northern Coast the seismicity capital of our state in one of our earlier blogs. For an in-depth seismological analysis of Saturday's quake, see the front page of the BSL websites. (hra048)