Experts explain the science behind Saturday’s deadly earthquake
A little before noon Saturday in Nepal, a chunk of rock about 9 miles below the earth’s surface shifted, unleashing a shock wave—described as being as powerful as the explosion of more than 20 thermonuclear weapons—that ripped through the Katmandu Valley.
In geological terms, the tremor occurred like clockwork, 81 years after the region’s last earthquake of such a magnitude, in 1934.
Records dating to 1255 indicate the region—known as the Indus-Yarlung suture zone—experiences a magnitude-8 earthquake approximately every 75 years, according to a report by Nepal’s National Society for Earthquake Technology.
The reason is the regular movement of the fault line that runs along Nepal’s southern border, where the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasia plate 40 million to 50 million years ago.
“The collision between India and Eurasia is a showcase for geology,” said Lung S. Chan, a geophysicist at the University of Hong Kong. The so-called India plate is pushing its way north toward Asia at a rate of about 5 centimeters, or 2 inches, a year, he said. “Geologically speaking, that’s very fast.”
As the plates push against each other, friction generates stress and energy that builds until the crust ruptures, said Dr. Chan, who compared the quake to a thermonuclear weapons explosion. In the case of Saturday’s quake, the plate jumped forward about 2 meters, or 6.5 feet, said Hongfeng Yang, an earthquake expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Saturday’s quake was also relatively shallow, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Such quakes tend to cause more damage and more aftershocks than those that occur deeper below the earth’s surface.
After an earthquake, the plates resume moving and the clock resets. “Earthquakes dissipate energy, like lifting the lid off a pot of boiling water,” said Dr. Chan. “But it builds back up after you put the lid back on.”
‘Earthquakes dissipate energy, like lifting the lid off a pot of boiling water. But it builds back up after you put the lid back on.’
Nepal is prone to destructive earthquakes, not only because of the massive forces involved in the tectonic collision, but also because of the type of fault line the country sits on. Normal faults create space when the ground cracks and separates. Nepal lies on a so-called thrust fault, where one tectonic plate forces itself on top of another.
The most visible result of this is the Himalayan mountain range. The fault runs along the 1,400-mile range, and the constant collision of the India and Eurasia plates pushes up the height of the peaks by about a centimeter each year.
Despite the seeming regularity of severe earthquakes in Nepal, it isn’t possible to predict when one will happen. Historic records and modern measurements of tectonic plate movement show that if the pressure builds in the region in a way that is “generally consistent and homogenous,” the region should expect a severe earthquake every four to five decades, Dr. Yang said.
The complexity of the forces applying pressure at the fault means scientists are incapable of predicting more than an average number of earthquakes that a region will experience in a century, experts say.
Still, earthquakes in Nepal are more predictable than most, because of the regular movement of the plates. Scientists aren’t sure why this is.
The earth’s tectonics plates are constantly in motion. Some faults release built-up stress in the form of earthquakes. Others release that energy quietly. “Some areas, like Nepal, release energy as a large earthquake, once in a while,” said Dr. Chan. “These regions all have different natures for reasons geologists don’t really know.”
Write to Sean McLain at [email protected] and Shirley S. Wang at [email protected]