Study Warned of China Quake Risk Nearly a Year Ago

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing
for National Geographic News
May 16, 2008

Just ten months before a deadly earthquake struck Sichuan Province's Beichuan county on May 12, a scientific study warned that the Chinese region was ripe for a major quake.

After examining satellite images and conducting on-the-ground inspections of deep, active faults in Sichuan Province for more than a decade, scientists issued a warning.

"The faults are sufficiently long to sustain a strong ground-shaking earthquake, making them potentially serious sources of regional seismic hazard," the Chinese, European, and U.S. geoscientists wrote in the mid-July 2007 edition of the journal Tectonics.

They concluded that clashing tectonic forces were growing in Beichuan, ready to burst in an explosion of seismic energy.

With precision and what now seems like eerie foresight, the researchers charted the active faults on multicolored maps of Beichuan, which turned out to be the epicenter of the recent earthquake.

"As far as I know, this is the only investigation of these active faults," said study co-author Michael Ellis of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

(Related: "China Quake Delivered Seismic One-Two Punch" [May 15, 2008].)

The magnitude 7.9 quake that struck on May 12 almost entirely leveled parts of Sichuan Province. Chinese officials today estimated that the death toll would reach 50,000 and that nearly five million people are homeless.

(See photos of the earthquake's destruction.)

"Locked in a Journal"

There is little reason to believe Chinese officials were aware of the July 2007 report, or that it would have made much difference if they had been.

"We had certainly identified the potential of these active faults," Ellis said. "But that information was effectively locked in an academic journal."

Continued on Next Page >>


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