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Damaged building in Chile after earthquake.
Photo Credit: Claudio Núñez/Wikipedia Commons
A collapsed building in Concepcion, Chile, following the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake. Scientists responded to the quake by deploying a suite of instruments to measure aftershocks in the hopes of better understanding and predicting future earthquakes.

Lasting experience

Scientist delays trip home to work on earthquake research

Eugene Domack External Non-U.S. government site was about six hours away from leaving Chile and returning to his family when the e-mails started flying. He had been away from home for more than two months, having just completed one of the most logistically challenging science expeditions of his career, as chief scientist on a major research cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Instead, he made the difficult decision of booking a ticket out of Santiago to Concepcion, near the epicenter of one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history.

Scientists in the United States and South America were coordinating their own emergency response to the massive magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck the west coast of Chile on Feb. 27.

Researchers were eager to install ground motion sensors — high-tech GPS instruments — in and around the quake zone of central Chile, according to Domack. The technology available today to measure ground motion wasn’t around even five years ago, he explained.

“This was the first chance to get detailed, continuous measurements of ground motion after an earthquake of great magnitude,” Domack said.

The geosciences professor from Hamilton College External Non-U.S. government site in New York was uniquely qualified for the job. He had access to equipment, including a satellite phone. He had done similar installations with the same technology in Antarctica. He speaks fluent Spanish. And, of course, he was already on the ground.

Seismic instrument in Chile.
Photo Credit: Steve Roecker/IRIS Consortium
A seismic station in the Chilean countryside.

Mike Bevis External Non-U.S. government site, a professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site, recruited Domack for the job. Bevis leads a project called the Central and Southern Andes GPS Project, or CAP, which measures crustal motion and deformation in the Central and Southern Andes.

Domack spent 10 more days in Chile, installing eight GPS stations for the study.

“It was very gratifying work,” he said. “It was probably the two best weeks of my professional career — to be able to do something that I had skills at and was for a cause that was scientifically relevant to a very serious societal problem, which is how the ground is going to behave in the next big earthquake down there.”

Preliminary measurements indicate that the earthquake moved the entire city of Concepcion at least 10 feet to the west, and shifted other parts of South America as far away as the Falkland Islands and Fortaleza, Brazil, according to online reports, including one published by the United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper.

Researchers deduced the movement by comparing precise GPS locations known prior to the major quake to those taken almost 10 days later from the CAPS project.

The National Science Foundation — which funded Domack’s work on the LARsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica (LARISSA) External Non-U.S. government site project — initiated a separate “rapid response” expedition in March called the Survey of Earthquake And Rupture Offshore Chile. [See related press release from the NSF External U.S. government site.]

NSF-funded scientists affiliated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego External Non-U.S. government site, already conducting research in the region aboard the Melville, spent an additional week mapping the seafloor. They were searching for structural changes in the seafloor that resulted from movement along faults and submarine landslides caused by the earthquake. The post-earthquake survey will help scientists better understand the rupture zone and how tsunamis are generated.

Back on the surface, Domack got a good look at the devastation. He saw entire adobe villages flattened.

“I’ll carry that [experience] into my classroom for the rest of my teaching career,” he said.

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