China helping quake scientists

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mizzou researchers hope a seismic study in northern China sheds light on the New Madrid Fault.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The New Madrid Fault in Southeast Missouri is a long way from Hebei province in China.

But a group of University of Missouri-Columbia scientists are hoping the lessons from north China's frequent, deadly earthquakes -- including one 30 years ago near Beijing that killed at least 244,000 people -- can provide clues to better understand the seismic risks in the Midwest.

Unlike earthquakes that hit California, Japan and other coastal regions, the seismic shifts known to geologists as intraplate earthquakes occur in the middle of otherwise stable tectonic plates, said Mian Liu, a geological sciences professor at Missouri.

"They happen in places they're not supposed to happen," said Liu, who grew up in China.

The Chinese government plans to funnel $20 million over the next five years into seismic research, an effort that includes delivering 800 portable seismic measuring devices across the country's northern region.

Liu is part of a group of dozens of Western geologists who, as Chinese expatriates, are collaborating with their colleagues back home to assess and analyze inland earthquakes.

Unlike Missouri, which was last hit nearly 200 years ago when a series of quakes spread through the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas, the heavily populated provinces of northern China have absorbed more than 30 significant earthquakes in the past 700 years.

That includes the Shaanxi earthquake in 1556, which claimed 830,000 victims and is considered the world's deadliest.

"Nature is not very kind and revealing to scientists," said An Yin, a geology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who, with Liu, is a leader of the International Professionals for the Advancement of Chinese Earth Sciences.

"Usually it shows us bits and pieces. By comparing cases between the two places, it gives you a more complete picture."

A better understanding of intraplate earthquakes abroad will help government officials and emergency planners in the U.S. develop stronger building codes, evacuation procedures and other disaster plans, said Eugene Schweig, regional coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey's earthquake hazards office in Memphis, Tenn.

The New Madrid Fault runs through Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois.

"We don't get many of these," said Schweig, referring to earthquakes both moderate in impact and far from coastal areas. "By looking worldwide, it gives us the kind of data we need."

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