Midwest meets East for a study of earthquakes

The research looks at poorly understood intraplate quakes that affect the regions.
Thursday, August 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Almost 200 years ago, an earthquake rocked areas of southeastern Missouri along the New Madrid fault. The ground sank, lakes were formed and the Mississippi River changed course.

The type of quake that struck New Madrid — the poorly understood intraplate earthquake — will soon be the focus of intense study on the other side of the planet. The Chinese government is expected to announce a number of heavily funded research initiatives aimed at understanding these earthquakes, which affect northern China and the American Midwest.

Mian Liu, a professor in MU’s department of geological sciences, called it an exciting opportunity for international collaboration and research.

“These intraplate earthquakes are not well understood, and the research in north China will help us better understand earthquakes that could happen here,” Liu said.

Eugene Schweig, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, agrees. “For those of us who work on intraplate earthquakes, this is exciting,” he said. “There are many things we need to understand that we don’t.”

Solving some of these problems could shape long-term planning, Schweig said. Identifying how waves travel after an intraplate earthquake, for example, could lead to revision of building codes in regions affected by the quakes.

Liu and Eric Sandvol, an associate professor of geological sciences at MU, are already collaborating with Chinese scientists on a pilot study of seismic activity in the north China region. The pair had worked in China last summer, deploying seismometers and surveying the geology of the region.

In contrast to more common interplate earthquakes, which happen at the boundaries of tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s outer shell, intraplate earthquakes occur in the middle of presumably stable tectonic plates.

A difficulty in studying these quakes is the infrequent rate at which they occur, Liu said.

Intraplate quakes are no less deadly, however. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the worst earthquake in modern history, the Tangshan quake that killed more than 250,000 people in the Chinese city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976.

Over the next five years, the Chinese government will invest $20 million for research on the topic through the National Science Foundation of China. Liu said he’s excited that the Chinese government has increased funding of the science foundation by 25 percent during the past two years.

Said Liu: “The model of collaboration might change fundamentally.”

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