Himalayan Earthquake Research
Earthquake scientists go to Himalayas for seismic research
The earthquake disaster in Nepal on April 25 caught the attention of the world, and it caught the attention of Steve Wesnousky, a geologist and professor in the College of Science who has been studying the Himalayan Frontal Thrust Fault since 1999.
Wesnousky, director of the University's Center for Neotectonic Studies, arrived in Kathmandu Sunday, May 3, and met up with his two graduate students to continue his studies to better understand the seismic hazard along one of the longest earthquake faults that affects one of the most populous areas of the Earth. The two students, Ian Pierce and Steve Angster, left the University May 3 and arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 6. There is a Nevada Today article with additional details. The pair will be sending updates regularly about what they see in Nepal and India as they search for ground ruptures along the faultline. The updates are listed below in chronological order.
World Improving Earthquake Research
New magnitude 7.3 aftershock pounds Himalayan region on May 12, 2015
Professor Wesnousky's two doctoral students, Steve Angster and Ian Pierce are safe in Kathmandu. Wesnousky had just left Nepal to come back home. They will be heading into the immediate aftershock zone south towards India to continue studies on the Himalayan fault.
The aftershock hit near the town of Namche Bazar, near Mount Everest. The US Geological Survey reported it as magnitude 7.3. The April 25 earthquake, centered in western Nepal was magnitude 7.8, four times stronger than today's aftershock, which has killed more people and damaged more buildings. It was felt as far away as the Indian capital Delhi, and Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Strong tremors were felt in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, which was badly damaged in last month's earthquake. More updates will be added in the timeline below as they are received from the team.
Angster and Pierce were out surveying damage to help quantify ground motion characteristics when the earthquake struck. Luckily they were standing in a field away from the tall brick chimney they had been measuring. They captured much of it on video. You will see clouds of dust on the horizen from building collapses and seiche (water splashing and swaying) in ponds. "Shaking felt long and slow, kinda like being on a boat in rough water, but not seeing the boat sway. " View the video here: https://youtu.be/58Y56TwVlf0.
Google Hangout video:
Members of the University's communications department spoke with the graduate students about their experience in the magnitude 7.3 earthquake on May 12, 2015. Video of the conversation is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmecZYQngdM
- May 6- Arrive in Kathmandu
- May 7- Chasing Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT)
- May 8- Visit Hariwan & Atrouli
- May 9- Ganja plain and HFT inspection
- May 10- Main fault inspection BharatpurDun, feeling aftershocks
- May 11- Mapping ground cracks in Kathmandu
- May 12- We experience major aftershock
- May 13- Woken by shaking, and travel to Pokhara
- May 14- Traveling, limited or no Internet access
- May 15- Made it Gorkha, epicenter of 7.8 earthquake
- May 16- Visit villages near epicenter
- May 17- Return to Kathmandu
- May 18- Back Home
- May 19- Helping the children
- Observations and Impressions by Professor Steve Wesnousky, May 12, 2015
The Applied Science of Quake Research
In 2005 Wesnousky said in a New York Times article that earthquakes with powerful magnitudes (akin to the then recent 7.6 northern Pakistan quake) could happen at almost any time along any part of the Himalayas. He is quoted then saying, "it might not occur for 10 to 20 years, but if it occurred tomorrow, it wouldn't be a surprise."
Flash forward the predicted 10 years and Wesnowsky is in Nepal and India studying the effects of the immense tectonic stress caused by the Indian subcontinent as it proceeds on a relentless collision course into Asia.
Follow the team's progress with updates and photos from the perspective of the two students:
Our ride for next few days. We'll be working with Dr. Deepak Chamlagain, assistant professor from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
May 7, 2015
We made it to Naya road... near Mahara? Staying here tonight. No surface rupture at hft site we checked today, and very light damage, but locals report surface rupture nearby. We will check tomorrow. Internet is terrible.
In the morning we had breakfast at our hotel and then met with Dr. Deepak Chamlagain and Roger Bilham. We then met our driver and packed into the small SUV we'd be taking down to the Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT). We drove through Kathmandu and got a glimpse of the damage. While many buildings were damaged, the vast majority were not. We saw many sights and smells. The traffic was very light we were told, as many people had left the city.
We climbed out of Kathmandu, and stopped at several overlooks. We were again surprised by the lack of damage when compared with our expectations from news reports. For a city of 4 million built out of primarily lightly reinforced masonry to survive an earthquake of this size with fewer than 3000 deaths was very fortunate. At the same time it is a great tragedy for those who did lose their homes or family members.
We continued driving through the countryside. There were houses and small villages everywhere, and occasionally we'd see some earthquake damage. There aren't really any open spaces here like in the U.S. There are small farms, houses, and people in every corner. The road was fairly rough, and very steep and narrow, with a lot of traffic- buses and trucks zipped by inches away from our truck. There were many other small SUVs, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, dogs, chickens, ducks, cows, and water buffalo along the road.
We stopped and checked out a dam which appeared undamaged. We had lunch in a small village a top a mountain. After four or five hours of driving, we got out of the lesser Himalaya, and the road became very flat and fast. We began heading east towards a large fault scarp of the HFT that Steve knew of. When we got to the scarp, we talked to the locals who were living there, and asked about the earthquake. They said they felt strong motion, but only one building was damaged, and nobody was killed. We looked around and found no evidence for surface rupture. We drove a few more kilometers to a guest house in a small village called Naya Road, where we spent the night. It was very hot and humid in this part of Nepal, as we were out of the Himalaya, and close to India.
Deepak heard reports from locals of surface rupture to the east, where we thought there might be some as it was predicted by models. We will head to Hariwan tomorrow to investigate.
May 8, 2015
Today we woke up around 0430 and were rolling by around 6 a.m. Our primary objective was to follow leads that Deepak had heard of the night before regarding surface rupture from the earthquake. We skipped breakfast and just had the customary tea, which is similar to chai.
Our first stop was a few kilometers outside of Naya Road, to get a detailed description of what a man had seen. We met with him in the courtyard of his house, and spoke for a while. We learned that large cracks had formed during the earthquake a few kilometers away. Before chasing those, however, we investigated the direction that several large, 40-meter-tall brick furnace chimneys had fallen, as this could potentially indicate strong motion directions.
Another man showed up, and we followed him up towards the mountain front. We eventually got to a small village, Atrouli, where the rupture supposedly happened. A whole gang of villagers led us up the mountain to a very large landslide complex. There were two main rotational blocks and many >2 m deep cracks. The left lateral scarp and head scarp had exposed failure planes that were heavily slickensided with a 10-meter-tall scarp and >15-meter-long slickenlines. We were very worried about the village below, as during the coming monsoons, the slide will likely reactivate and take out the village. We explained this to them, and hopefully they will pay attention to this slide. Unfortunately for us, this was not the surface rupture we were looking for, but cool none the less. It was really hot and humid climbing around the mountains.
The villagers make their money farming mangos, and they were predominantly Buddhist. We met a woman named Haricot who owns a farm and is head of her household, which is very rare in Nepal. She was very nice and made us tea, fresh bananas, and gave us beautiful red, gold, and white scarves. She said she was involved with OXFAM.
After talking with the villagers for a while we continued on our mission to investigate the HFT. We went to the trench site from Lave et al., 2005, and looked at the scarp which they attribute to the 1100 AD earthquake. It was about 4 meters tall, and their trench indicates 17 meters of slip. The earthquake that generated it was likely ~M8.8, 30 times more energy than the recent earthquake. I tried to ride a water buffalo after asking a kid I saw do it, but no luck, and I narrowly avoided being trampled.
Next, we continued on to the trench sites from Bollinger et al., 2014. They present evidence that the 1934 earthquake did in fact rupture the surface, but the scarp we looked at was suspect. We also met more cool villagers. The kids smiles here are amazing, and there is very little earthquake damage in this area. All together we covered about 50 km of the fault.
We got to our hotel at around 2000, and it is very nice compared to last night, and even has a/c and wifi. Tomorrow we'll keep investigating Bollinger's work, and keep looking for surface rupture, but at this point we haven't found any, and it seems unlikely that we will. - Ian
Update from Steve A.:
Today we continued our quest along the "HFT" in search of surface rupture from the recent earthquake. The HFT is the fault where prior surface rupturing earthquake events have been previously documented and where rupture is the most likely to manifest from an earthquakes such as this one. We traveled ~50 km from Naya Rd to Bardipas with Dr Wesnousky and Dr Chamlagain (professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu) mostly looking at river cut exposures along the frontal mountains. Thus far, we haven't observed any obvious evidence of surface rupture, but as we are learning more about this earthquake realize how unique this event is. During our search, we were led by locals to a large landslide triggered by shaking from the earthquake. After crawling around on the large blocks and assessing the landslide, we were able to educate the them on how it happened and, thanks to Dr. Chamlagain, assist them in receiving future aid for the potential danger this slide poses. Locals were very kind providing tea and shade after long, hot muggy hike. We also visited a brick factory that experienced a chimney collapse during the strong shaking.
Tomorrow's plan will be similar to today's. In search for rupture and visit previous study sites to help our understanding of the Himalayan system. Food has been amazing, people have been very kind, welcoming, eager to share their earthquake story, and extremely helpful in guiding us to the right locations. Weather is HOT, humid, and hot. Acclimatizing slowly but excited for clean showers tonight!
May 9, 2015
We woke up in Bardibas at the nicest hotel we'd stayed at since leaving Kathmandu. We immediately drove a few kilometers to a series of HFT fault scarps that Bollinger et al. had mapped. Some of these scarps were multi-event scarps greater than 20 meters, but some were very similar in form to the Lave et al. scarps that we had looked at the previous day, approximately four meters high with some geomorphic development. This was difficult for us to resolve as we aren't calibrated for the geomorphic rates in this area- we are used to looking at scarps in the desert, and not in the Himalaya with its meters of precipitation per year. Essentially, we weren't sure if significant channels are able to be form in the 81 years since the 1934 earthquake occurred in this region, which Bollinger argues is responsible for the scarps here. Lave et al. argue that similar scarps approximately 20 kilometers to the north are from an 1100 A.D. earthquake. A lot more work needs to be done in this area to resolve the paleoseismic record.
We continued east to a trench site that Deepak and Kumahara (from Hiroshima) had dug a few years previously. Their trench was filled in, but the river (technically a khola - Hindi for intermittent stream) had exposed a cut through sediments which showed the Pliocene-Pleistocene Shiwalak formation in an angular unconformity below Holocene-Pleistocene fluvial gravels. The Shiwalak formation makes up much of the southern Lesser Himalaya, and is essentially a sequence of Himalayan fluvial deposits- similar to what is now found in the plains below the Himalaya, but now lithified, lightly folded, and tilted, and in this area they were south dipping.
We drove back to the highway and headed west. The highway here is a two "lane" road that is essentially the Interstate 5 of Nepal. However, it is very slow to drive on, occasionally (and without signs) turns to gravel, has goats, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, monkeys, children, tractors, buffalo carts, bicycles, trucks, buses, motorbikes, and cars traveling on it without many rules. It is slow going, but is faster than driving in the mountains. Everyone is constantly honking and driving around each other.
We saw a few chimneys from brick "factories," essentially large kilns where they use coal to bake local sediments into bricks. We are starting a project to map the orientation that these chimneys fall. We hypothesize that they may indicate the direction of strong motion, but we need to test this with real data. Most of which we'll collect in Kathmandu, but the six or so chimneys that we found on the plains are worth noting.
This took a few hours, and then we stopped for lunch. The traditional Nepalese lunch is dal with rice and some vegetables. It is very good and heavily spiced.
We continued west, and went to a few new spots to look for possible future trench sites, as well as to check for surface rupture, although at this point we had already checked the most likely locations. The best elevation data we have in this area is SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) data which is 90 meter resolution. It's like looking through foggy goggles compared to the 10 or 1 meter lidar data we are accustomed to working with. The first site we went to was a bust. The second site was informative, but also not a good trench site. There were four or five flights of terraces above a beautiful village. The first two terraces were back-tilted close to the fault scarp, which is what is expected in a thrust fault, and was very cool to see demonstrated.
It was getting dark at this point, so we got back in the car and drove west another few hours, stopping for the standard drink of chai with buffalo milk, and finally got to a hotel in Hamauda, which is a little bit into the mountains again. - Ian Pierce
We continued driving east along the Himalayan Frontal Thrust Fault stopping at previous study sites to calibrate our paleoseismic eye to what large earthquake rupture events look like. This involved a lot of discussion of rupture mechanics and surface ruptures up to 17 meters. (That's about 40 ft of vertical uplift). The enormous energy release in these past events became apparent, and we realized that we have not seen anything close to these past events within the geomorphology. From what we've seen, this (April 25) earthquake did not rupture the HFT as past large events have before.
Throughout our travels along the HFT and the lower Ganja plain, we noticed a lot of broken chimneys from brick factories. There's an abundant amount here, and from what we've been told, there are just as many up in Kathmandu. So we have started acquiring data on which way the chimneys fall with hopes it will tell us something about ground motion. We collected data on these chimneys as we worked our way back to Kathmandu. Made it to Hetuada late tonight. Ate dinner only place open and hit the sack. - Steve Angster
May 10, 2015
Woke up to a spicy cup of chai (lots of black pepper!!) and hit the road. Goal today is to drive back to Kathmandu via a westerly route so we can see the main parts of the Himalayan thrust complex (main faults of cross section posted above). Drove through a national park that apparently has tigers and elephants, but we were unlucky and didn't see any. It was a long windy road that went through a lot of small villages. As we drove, I can't help thinking how incredibly populated, polluted and poverty stricken these places are, but people are so kind, welcoming, and happy. So nice to see and get a dose of real life and escape the bubble of Americana (one of the best things about traveling is coming back appreciative of being in America). Anyways, we did not see a lot of earthquake damage, until we arrived into the Kathmandu Valley. Just so happens Kathmandu had a magnitude 5 aftershock about three hours before we arrived and we saw some emergency vehicles as we drove around the city. -Steve A.
We woke up and started driving right away again, this time heading west to BharatpurDun (Dun means valley in Hindi). This is an unusual basin which is behind the HFT, but before the MBT - the next major thrust fault in from the HFT. We stopped for breakfast. This was the biggest city we'd been in since leaving Kathmandu. There wasn't much noticeable earthquake damage here, like most of the south.
We continued driving, with plans to make it to Kathmandu that night, and it was a long drive (despite the relatively short distance) across the mountains. We stopped to look at an exposure of the MBT. It was highly sheared material- it actually looked a lot like the 'blue goo' of the Franciscan formation in Northern California. The fault had essentially taken whatever rocks where here and pulverized them into a weak clay-ey material.
We continued driving- next stop was a few outcrops of the MCT- the next thrust fault zone inbound from the MBT. Here we looked at high-grade metamorphic rocks: spotted hornfels, gneiss, garnet schists with beautiful folds. We gave a bunch of chocolate to local kids here and it was fun; they know the word chocolate and would come running to the truck. This site was where Deepak's university takes their students to do field mapping. They spend three weeks doing a strip map across the Himalaya- which is incredibly impressive if you could see the terrain. The roads here have 1000-foot near-vertical drops down to the rivers, and thousands of feet up to the tops of the mountains. There are acres of dense vegetation; it must be quite challenging to map.
Finally we started to get close to Kathmandu. We could tell there was more damage than there had been in the south. As we were driving in, we saw a bunch of ambulances, and Deepak got a phone call. Apparently there was an aftershock, which, with the state of many of the buildings, (not collapsed, but damaged) could easily injure or kill people.
We stopped at Deepak's university. His geology department's building had been condemned. Interestingly, it was built in 1918- and it survived the 1934 earthquake. Although, a clock tower fell, which was rebuilt, and didn't fall this time. We saw many of the other government buildings which also had been heavily damaged and all were still standing.
We finally made it back to our hotel in Kathmandu, and after discussing our plans, took a few hours off to explore the area around our hotel, the Thamal district. It was interesting talking to people here. They all spoke English, which was very different from the rural villages we'd been in the past few days.
I met a girl who asked me about the earthquake. She worked at a non-profit women's center, and was very concerned about problems in Nepal. She talked about how she had plans to go help out in some of the rural northern villages, which apparently had been hit the hardest by the earthquake. People there are wondering how to rebuild, as they need shelter quickly before the monsoon season hits in the next few weeks. There are shelters and aid coming in, but not enough. I wasn't sure what to tell her. I'm not an engineer, but the unreinforced or lightly reinforced masonry in the cities performs very poorly in earthquakes. There are not many materials, or even if there were, there's not enough money with which to build better homes. In villages, there are likely ways that houses could be built better (check out NSET - they have publications about this) but people lack the knowledge to do so.
From others, I learned that there are about 2,200 affected villages, and nowhere near enough engineers or materials to help people rebuild in the time needed. Furthermore, there are significant landslide problems that were initiated by the earthquake, but will be greatly exacerbated by the coming rains. It really is a desperate situation in these areas.
May 11, 2015
Our plan for today was to map a large set of ground cracks that follow a trend in Kathmandu. We met with Dipendra Gautam- a student of Deepak's. He is a civil engineer, and will be our guide for the next few days.
We headed to the area with the cracks, which was southeast of the airport in Kathmandu. We began mapping and talking to locals. They all wanted Dipendra's opinion of their houses- many of which would be immediately red-tagged and torn down were they in the United States, but here, nobody has anywhere to go or money to do anything about it. Everybody was interested in what we were doing and were very happy to show us what they saw and describe their experience. Again, there was a crowd of smiling kids- apparently a theme in Nepal.
We spent most of the day moving from street to street, making a map and taking pictures of the cracks (some were greater than 1.5 meters in height).
The people I talked to today seemed to be most concerned about the damage to the World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu, which attract many tourists and are a significant economic driver. Everywhere we went, people were trying to rebuild.
Some houses were rotated or tilted, but very few were destroyed outright. My estimate is that less than one in 2000 (0.5 percent) of houses were totally destroyed. Some of the tilted homes were probably put on end about 15 degrees, which makes them uninhabitable, but probably didn't kill anyone. Fortunately there aren't any gas lines here, so no fires. We also didn't find any evidence of liquefaction- which plagued Christchurch after their 2010 earthquake sequence.
The GPS data and these observations suggest that the earthquake was very gentle- it moved the surface a lot but relatively slowly. For example, we spent a day investigating the 2014 Napa, California earthquake this past Fall, and everywhere we went there we saw a huge amount of broken wine bottles; but here, even in a building that was partially ripped apart by cracks, there were intact bottles sitting on shelves. It really is amazing. People need to tear down their homes and rebuild, but it seems unlikely that this will happen at the scale it needs to. Let's hope another large earthquake won't happen for a while, but obviously nobody really knows.
Despite all of the hardship, people were still very generous; we were invited to have tea with a family who's building had been heavily damaged.
At the end of the day, Dipendra took us on a bus - which was quite the experience- and then on the way to our hotel we walked through one of the world heritage sites that had been destroyed. We also saw a large tent camp to where some people were relocated. The city really seems to be getting back to normal, despite the damage and uncertainty. This isn't to say they don't have problems and they don't need help- they do, but it seems that people are trying to get on with their lives.
Tomorrow we will spend time mapping chimney damage throughout the basin. In two days time we plan to head towards the epicenter - Gorkha - and will then probably see the really badly damaged areas. - Ian Pierce
From Steve Angster:
Woke up in Kathmandu. Mission today was to map some fractures formed during the main earthquake in an area in the city called Kausaltar. Our guide/now good friend Dipendra helped us as we walked around the busy neighborhood of Kausaltar. Met with lots of locals who knew exactly where every little crack was. Felt like I could give them the map and they could fill it in right them and there.
Saw a lot of damaged building/houses that have been "red-tagged" and yet people are living in and around these dangerous buildings that are ready to collapse. Heart-breaking to hear their stories and unclear plan for the future. They have nowhere to go and no money to do so if they did.
May 12, 2015
From Steve Angster:
Ian, Dipendra (cilvil engineering student here in Kathmandu), and I were out mapping fallen brick kiln chimneys on the outskirts of Kathmandu when the aftershock hit. Thankfully, we just left one chimney and were in the middle of a field. Just before it hit, I heard a commotion from nearby dogs and goats, and then we were moving! Scary feeling, but we all felt relativly safe where we were standing. We saw seiche (water splashing and swaying) in ponds, bricks falling off of chimneys that we were measuring, and dust billowing up from collapsed structures on the horizon. Shaking felt long and slow, kinda like being on a boat in rough water, but not seeing the boat sway. We were reluctant to go near other chimneys thereafter, but continued on collecting data and stopping every once in awhile thinking we were feeling more shaking.
As we entered back into the city, the streets were more crowded than ever. People out on the streets (away from buildings) and cars jam-packed from people trying to rush home. Dipendra pointed out a couple buildings that collapsed today. Lots of people we standing around them. Hoping no one was in them.
We ended the day at Dipendra's sisters house, who gave us food and some local wine (definitely need at the end of this day). Feels like everyone is on edge here in the valley. We heard that there have been little casualties from this aftershock event and hope they stay low. Tomorrow we head to Pokerah as a jump off point to get to Gorkha where the main shock was two weeks ago. Will send updates when we can.
Prayers and thoughts go out to Nepalees people tonight. Saw lots of people camping out in open spaces tonight. There are so few open spaces that we even saw people in medians in between busy streets.
Update from Ian
It was difficult to stand during first few seconds. Shaking like a boat lasted several minutes, likely waves bouncing around the valley. Intense shaking maybe 20 or 30 seconds, but we weren't counting.
From Steve Wesnousky
As I journeyed home from Nepal on May 12, a large aftershock resulted in dozens more fatalities, a thousand additional injuries, numerous more fallen buildings already weakened in the earlier shock, and perhaps more clues to the processes that produce earthquakes," he said. "I heard of the event from a fellow traveler on the plane to Istanbul, then transferred to a plane that had no Internet access on the way to Paris. When I arrived I was in contact with Steve and Ian and glad to hear they were okay
May 13, 2015
Yesterday Steve Wesnousky left around 7 a.m. We woke in Kathmandu and hired a taxi to drive us around the city for our chimney surveys. We measured the orientation that these chimneys fell to see if it would make a pattern that could give insight about how the earthquake waves traveled through the Kathmandu basin. Near these brick factories, the people were mostly very poor Indian immigrants and low caste nepalese. It is sad to see the slums that they live in, but their children were all smiling and playing and it is beautiful in the areas they live, around the outskirts of the city, as opposed to the more dense urban areas.
Around 1 p.m. we were hiking through a field between chimneys when we heard a commotion. Dogs were barking, birds were making noise, and goats were bleating. A second later the ground started to move, it was pretty violent and hard to stand for almost 30 seconds. The chimney we were heading towards had a few hundred bricks fall off of it. Next to us there was a small pool of water and waves formed in it- a seiche. On the horizons we saw several clouds of dust from the city - buildings collapsing- and in the mountains - landslides. For several minutes we felt waves coming in, it was like being on a boat. We were probably getting moved around close to a half meter or more with these waves, but it was silent, subtle, and we couldn't see anything but the water splashing. It felt like we were really drunk and it was difficult to walk. For the next hour we kept thinking the ground was shaking, and at times it was. We estimated the first quake as an magnitude 6.x, it turned out to be a 7.3.
People ran out of their houses and sat in fields with umbrellas. We quickly finished up our survey at that area and got in our car to head to lunch then the next survey area. Driving through the city was nuts. Everyone was in the streets, either in cars trying to get home or sitting next to the road or in the medians. All the restaurants we tried to go to were closed. We drove all the way across Kathmandu to the eastern part for our surveys and only saw one newly collapsed building, which was truly amazing. The traffic was really bad as it created problems for emergency vehicles trying to cross the city to get people to hospitals.
After finishing our survey around 5 p.m., we drove back to our hotel. Everything was closed, and many of the guests were checking out. People were really scared. When they found out we were geologists, they would ask us what was going to happen. We really have no idea, but were (are) scared ourselves. I noticed a lot of new, but minor, cracks in our hotel. Some of the other Americans there asked us if it was safe. We said probably, but that we have no idea what would happen. All the hotel workers were in the lobby playing poker and watching the news. Around midnight we did a few video chat interviews and then went to sleep. We slept with our bags next to our beds and ready to go.
Steve woke me up at around 3 a.m. and I felt a shock, that felt like some of the big waves from the 7.3. I put my helmet on and tried to sleep. I kept waking up in extreme fear and thinking there was another earthquake.
Around 5 a.m. we got up and had breakfast. Our plan was to leave and head to Pokhara for a day of downtime then head to Gorkha, near the epicenter. The American girls we met the night before said they left in the middle of the night during the big aftershock to camp out in the open. Everyone was terrified, but the resilience of the Nepali people is really amazing. They are determined to rebuild, but also extremely angry with their government for assuring them that there would be no more earthquakes. This will probably cause tension going forward. People are really scared and on edge though, it's a hard to describe the atmosphere. Walking around Thamel, which is usually a bustling tourist area - and was starting to return to normal before the 7.3 - the streets were quiet and empty.
Dipendra (student from the local University) arrived and we got on a local bus to go to Pokhara to take a day off and escape the tension and aftershocks. We later learned that there were around 50 aftershocks over magnitude 4.0 in the first day. The local bus ride was brutal after hardly sleeping. It was a small van packed with about 20 people for six hours through the mountains. I was starting to lose it when we got there, so went on a walk and got a tuborg. I found a restaurant with a view of the lake and watched the sunset. Unfortunately, I'd broken my camera lens two nights before. I then wandered around the streets, talking to people and taking in the town. It was amazing how there was no damage here even though Pokhara was the same distance away from the epicenter as Kathmandu, although the fault ruptured the other direction. People here were hurting economically though. It is the middle of the tourist season and nobody is here, and that is normally huge business. We saw a woman wearing a helmet inside a store.
This earthquake series is unnerving for us as geologists. Everest and the high Himalaya are some of the fastest growing mountains in the world, but they went down in this sequence. The Himalaya Front Thrust fault has huge scarps presumably from paleo earthquakes. However, this earthquake did not rupture the HFT to the surface. We don't totally understand it but it's plausible that it has increased stress along the front, which would lead to a larger earthquake. We have no idea when that would happen, but it has happened historically.
The humanitarian situation in Nepal is also complicated. Kathmandu was starting to seem normal, although many people are living in dangerously damaged buildings, and have lost power and water. Now everyone is scared but lucky that there has not been more damage. The 1505 quake killed 30 percent of the population of Nepal. We expected much worse from this quake. Many of the world heritage sites have been destroyed which will have a lingering impact on their tourism industry for years to come, which is one of their biggest economic drivers after remittance.
There are 2,200 rural and difficult to access villages that have been partially destroyed and cut off from the world. These people are in desperate need of aid. Furthermore, they need to quickly rebuild as monsoon season is coming soon and the situation will worsen if they don't rebuild. They need to rebuild with earthquake resilient structures though which requires training and consulting from engineers. I don't think this is happening at the scale it needs to. People want this help and understand this need, but it's not there.
Even further complicating this, there are many recently activated landslides that will become serious problems once it starts raining in a few weeks. I fear many more people will die from these.
Tomorrow, we travel to Gorkha, the epicenter, and we will see first hand the damage that has happened in these areas.
May 15, 2015
Made it to Gorkha epicenter. Morale is low, but damage is less than expected. There is talk of setting up an investment fund to support orphaned school children with supplies. Tomorrow we will go to a heavily damaged village. Hotel has no wifi and we are at a restaurant.
Update: We felt a 4.9 in Pokhara this morning. Deepak says maybe 1 million people (out of 4 mil) have left Kathmandu.
May 16, 2015
From Ian Pierce:
Yesterday we woke in Gorkha to head to the epicenter. We had felt two small aftershocks during dinner, and a third woke us in the night. Everyone here was very scared and morale was low. Their World Heritage Site, the castle of the king who united Nepal, was heavily damaged and closed.
We were 16 kilometers from the epicenter, and the drive took seven hours including stops for lunch and to document damage. The road was really rough, but the countryside was the most beautiful we'd seen yet. No trash, bright green rice and corn fields, huge rivers and towering mountains. All along the river and mountains there were small slope failures, mostly rockfalls from the earthquake. Some were actually pretty big, but the nature of the hard bedrock everywhere here seems to limit their size to some extent.
We stopped at a lot of the villages. I spoke with a bunch of kids.
I'd say "Namaste Saati."
They'd reply "Hi! Where are you from? What is your name? What is your mother's name? What is your father's name?"
Many houses in this area were destroyed. In some villages almost all, in others maybe only half. All the schools we saw were destroyed. After gut-pounding hours of bouncing down the road, then climbing almost straight up the side of a mountain in our truck, we made it to Barpak. We were immediately greeted by a pack of boys who jumped on our bumper and rode into the village, they thought it was a great game to ride the aid trucks up and down the mountain. Almost everything here was destroyed.
It was raining. A few hundred people were gathered in the town center having aid distributed. Nearby was the ruins of their school. A member of the Nepal Armed Police Force told us 1,200 to 1,400 homes were destroyed, and 71 people were killed. As we walked through the ruins of the village, people and soldiers were busy rebuilding. Tents were everywhere. Helicopters and aid trucks were coming and going. We were 1,200 meters above the river, and as the clouds cleared we could see snowcapped mountains that were probably another 4,000 meters above us. This village has road access. We could see villages across the canyons that did not have access and were dotted with brightly colored aid tents, indicating their buildings also were destroyed. It was a really emotional scene, but we were again completely struck by the resilience of the Nepali. Everyone was working together to rebuild. People offered us lunch as we walked by. A woman Deepak spoke with who had lost two relatives offered us tea.
This was the hardest part of the trip for us. I was brought to tears several times looking out at the scene over the village. Deepak had spoken with us the night before about setting up a fund to help support orphaned children through school. We plan to do this and will have a PayPal account setup when we get back to the states. The money will be invested locally with no overhead and managed by Deepak who is a local professor in Kathmandu. The interest will be used to support children here who have lost everything. We hope to raise around $10,000, and ask our friends to put their week's beer money towards this cause, as a little goes a long way in this country.
From Steve Angster:
May 13-17, 2017
Past couple days have been a whirlwind of emotion. After the large aftershock we felt in Kathmandu, tension was high in the city. Lots of locals, tourist, and aid workers were frightened. No one wants to be near a building, but unfortunately there are buildings all around. Most people are looking for open spaces to stay, and there are few so it's very crowded. It's hard to sleep with this always in the back of your mind. Smaller aftershocks keep fueling this.
We went to Pokarah to escape the unnerving feel of Kathmandu. We traveled east by local bus for about five hours, which added to our stress, but brought us to a beautiful lake (Lake Tarwa) sitting just below enormously high mountains of the high Himalaya. Wow!! First look at the high Himalaya!! They are really spectacular. In the morning and when the haze is at its minimum it's really intimidating to look up 7000 meters at a peak that's only 25 kilometers away. I guess that's what about 10 millimeters a year of uplift will do over 50 million years. Absolutely stunning. Our last morning there, we felt a small aftershock during breakfast. Paradise shaken.
As much as we wanted to stay in Pokarah, we saddled up for Gorkah with intentions to observe damage near the epicenter of the main shock. Gorkah is a beautiful city that sits high on a mountain and was the capital of Nepal around 200 years ago. Gorkah Palace, once home to King Pritsibi Narayan Shah, sits on the ridge top over looking the city and valley below. The palace experienced a lot of shaking and is now severely damaged. Thanks to Deepak's credentials, the local police let us through to take pictures. That night we experienced a decent aftershock during dinner. This one was short and sweet, but made sleeping difficult that night.
We got an early start the next day to drive up to Barpak. We heard reports that this was one of the most devastated towns and wanted to see for ourselves the shaking effects from a magnitude 7.8. The drive in was extremely bumpy and dusty.
As we got further and further into the mountains and closer to the epicenter we saw more and more damage within these small farming villages. An aid truck/tractor would pass us once in awhile that was filled to the brim with supplies, mostly food. The drive became more intense as we started up the switchbacks and rapidly gained elevation. Our driver is amazing, no fear. We saw more and more hill-slope failures as we rose. Looking out across these deep drainages, it's stunning to see the corn fields along the steep hillsides. What amazing people.
We made it to Barpak in seven hours and drove only 20 kilometers. Wouldn't say isolated, but damn near close. Had to hike the last couple hundred meters and as the town came into view the devastation was humbling. Nearly 80 percent of the stone homes were collapsed, killing about 200 hundred of the 2000 people here. Many people were gathered in the lawn of the collapsed school waiting for supplies to arrive by helicopter. It's was raining. They were huddled under tarps just waiting out the storm. So sad. We walked through the rubble. People were trying to move the collapsed stones from their foundations, but there nowhere to put them. Deepak said it best: "I don't know what to write." I got sick of taking pictures. Just too sad. It was amazing how high of spirits the people were in. Kids playing soccer and smiles from people we passed. We even got invited to join a family for dinner, while they were eating and taking a break from rebuilding. Go Barpak! The town is absolutely beautiful, sitting on a flat next to the ridge and over looking the high Himalaya.
After a long drive down, we arrive in Bandipur for needed rest. Heading to Kathmandu today to prepare to head home. Can't wait to see Jade and friends. Ian and I are planning with Deepak to set up donation fund to help affected kids with education. More info to come.
May 19, 2015
We are trying to raise money through grassroots means to support orphaned children in Nepal with school supplies, books, and uniforms. In rural areas entire villages were destroyed, along with their schools. The government plans to rebuild schools, but we fear many children will be left out. School in Nepal is free, but children must have their own supplies to attend. This costs about $200 per year per child, but without support, many orphans will no longer be able to afford this. Nepal has high illiteracy rates (43 percent) and child labor rates (34 percent). This fund will directly help keep kids in school. This money will establish a permanent fund in a Nepali bank which will use the interest generated to support kids every year from elementary school through high school. The fund will be managed by Dr. Deepak Chamlagain, a professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and Dr. Max Wyss (University of Alaska, Fairbanks), with no overhead (aside from bank fees), and will generate approximately 8 percent interest. We hope to raise $10,000. There will be annual updates shared with donors. We are collecting money with PayPal to send in bulk via wire transfer to Nepal. Anything helps. Please donate via PayPal to IAN@NEVADA.UNR.EDU. Contact us with questions or for more details at the above email address. Thank you. Ian and Steve
The April 25 Gorkha earthquake of Nepal
Observations and Impressions by Professor Steve Wesnousky after visiting the Katmandu and surrounding areas with Steve and Ian
The distance between the northern and southern borders of Nepal decreases about 2 meters every 100 years as the incessant march of plate tectonics brings India colliding into Nepal. The decrease in distance does not occur steadily but instead by sudden movements which we know as earthquakes, separated by long periods of quiescence as stresses build up again to the next one. This particular earthquake moved the city of Kathmandu upward about 1 meter and some 2.5 meters southward over the course of several seconds. It is the shaking and landslides resulting from this sudden slip that has likewise collided with the lives of Nepalese and the buildings in which they live and work. For those impacted in the rural areas, the impending aftershocks and monsoons capable of dumping meters of rainfall over the course of summer will move shaken earth yet further and impede the course of recovery in affected areas. One cannot diminish the impact of this particular earthquake on the lives of those affected.
This said, what was most startling and surprising upon first entering Kathmandu a week after the earthquake was the relative lack of visible damage to the densely spaced arrangement of largely brick buildings that serves as homes and business centers to the 4 million inhabitants of Kathmandu valley. I am sure the same impression will be shared by others that have and will be entering Kathmandu in the near future. Damage is concentrated in and around the squares of Durbar Bhaktapur, Durbar Patan and Durbar Kathmandu, each the center of a past Nepalese kingdom. Here construction of most buildings date to the 19th century and many towers and temples knocked down and reconstructed after a large earthquake in 1934 have again fallen. But significant damage is not limited to measures of building damage. My Nepalese colleagues inform me that 3/4 - 1 million people have left the Kathmandu valley. The tourist districts emanate an eery quiet in comparison to my visits to these same areas in the past. The effect on the economy to an already poor country is palpable.
The science of earthquake hazard studies is in essence a community effort to address four simple questions; Where? How often? How big? and, of course, When? The occurrence of the April 25 earthquake was not a surprise to those who study the area. Historical records, geology, and geophysical measurements tell us that earthquakes like this may be expected beneath Khatmandu every 800-1000 years or so. Nepalese government agencies were well aware of this and planning for it to the level their economy allowed. Of course we would have liked to have predicted exactly when the event was to occur, but our science just isn't 'there' yet. It is the 'how big' of this event that is perhaps the biggest surprise and will garner the most attention of researchers in the near future.
I'm sure most of my colleagues would agree that the earthquake was smaller than we feared, in terms of the degree of shaking damage, the magnitude, and the physical dimensions of the fault that slipped to produce the earthquake. The city in some sense dodged a bullet. Inhabitants of the west are generally familiar with the famous San Andreas fault and aware that we can see it as its upper edge courses through California. Indeed, Superman can even be seen zipping it shut during one of his movies. The repeated earthquake displacements along it like that of the famous 1906 earthquake deform the ground along it in a unique way that may be recognized. The same is true for the fault that produced the Gorkha earthquake. We may see it. And we fully expected the ground to rupture along its path during this earthquake. It didn't. Studies of satellite imagery soon after the earthquake show this to be true and I spent the last week in Nepal with graduate students Steve Angster and Ian Pierce looking for evidence of any such rupture. It just isn't to be seen. Future investigations will most certainly be aimed at understanding why fault displacement during this particular earthquake was confined to depth to never reach the surface.
Reports of older earthquakes from centuries past provide us clues in our quest to assess the 'how big', 'how often', and 'where?' of future earthquakes. Reports of ancient earthquakes extend back nearly 1000 years in Nepal. The recent earthquake provides a unique opportunity to reinterpret that history. The extensive descriptions of damage being collected in this earthquake will be used as a template of comparison to historical accounts of ancient earthquakes. This comparison will be key to accurately determining the location and size of earthquakes that occurred before modern instrumental methods were developed for measuring the magnitude of an earthquake.
And so it goes in earthquake science. A human tragedy evolves to a scientific opportunity. It is an opportunity to better understand the processes that make earthquakes and lessen the damages attendant to their occurrence.