Earthquakes in Nepal

The magnitude 7.8 Gorkha earthquake hit much of the Himalayan state of Nepal on 25 April 2015, to be followed by one of magnitude 7.3 150 km to the east 18 days later. As would have happened in any high-relief area both events triggered a huge number of landslides as well as toppling buildings, killing almost 9000 people and leaving 22 000 injured in the capital Kathmandu and about 30 rural administrative districts. Relief and reconstruction remain hindered 9 months on in many of the smaller villages because they are accessible only by footpaths. Nepal had remained free of devastating earthquakes for almost 6 centuries, highlighting the perils of long quiescence in active plate-boundary areas.

Damage in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the Gorkha earthquake in May 2015 (Credit: CNN)
Damage in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the Gorkha earthquake in May 2015 (Credit: CNN)

The International Charter: Space and Major Disasters consortium of many national space agencies was activated, resulting in one of the largest ever volumes of satellite images ranging from 30 to 1 m resolution to be captured and made freely available for relief direction, analysis and documentation. This allowed more than 7500 volunteers to engage in ‘crowd mapping’ coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to provide logistic support to the Nepal government, UN Agencies and other international organizations who were swiftly responding with humanitarian relief. Most important was the location of damaged areas using ‘before-after’ analysis and assessing possible routes to remote areas. The US NASA and British Geological Survey with Durham University coordinated a multinational effort by geoscientists to document the geological, geophysical and geomorphological factors behind the mass movement of debris in landslides etc that was triggered by the earthquakes, results from which have just appeared (Kargel, J.S. and 63 others 2016. Geomorphic and geological controls of geohazards induced by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Science, v. 351, p. 140 – full text purchase).

The large team mapped 4312 new landslides and inspected almost 500 glacial lakes for damage, only 9 had visible damage but none of them showing signs of outbursts. As any civil engineer might have predicted, landslides were concentrated in areas with slopes exceeding 30° coincided with high ground acceleration due to the shaking effect of earthquakes. Ground acceleration can only be assessed from the actual seismogram records of the earthquakes, though slope angle is easily mapped using existing digital elevation data (e.g. SRTM). It should be possible to model landslide susceptibility to some extent over large areas by simulation of ground shaking based on various combinations of seismic magnitude and epicenter depth modulated by maps of bedrock and colluvium on valley sides as well as from after-the-event surveys. The main control over distribution of landslides seems to have been the actual fault mechanism involved in the earthquake, assessed from satellite radar interferometry, with the greatest number and density being on the downthrow side (up to 0.82 m surface drop): the uplifted area (up to 1.13 m) had barely any debris movements. Damage lies above deep zones where brittle deformation probably takes place leading to sudden discrete faults, but is less widespread above deep zones of plastic deformation.

The geoscientific information gleaned from the Gorkha earthquake’s effects will no doubt help in assessing risky areas elsewhere in the Himalayan region. Yet so too will steady lithological and structural mapping of this still poorly understood and largely remote area. As regards the number of lives saved, one has to bear in mind that few people buried by landslides and collapsed buildings survive longer than a few days. It seems that rapid response by geospatial data analysts to the logistics of relief and escape has more chance of positive humanitarian outcomes.

In the same issue of Science appears another article on Nepalese seismicity, but events of the 12th to 14th centuries CE (Schwanghart, W. and 10 others 2016. Repeated catastrophic valley infill following medieval earthquakes in the Nepal Himalaya. Science, v. 351, p. 147-150). As the title suggests, this relates to recent geology beneath a valley floor in which Nepal’s second city Pokhara is located. It lies immediately to the south of the 8000 m Annapurna massif, about 50 km west of the Gorkha epicentre. Sections through the upper valley sediments reveal successive debris accumulations on scales that dwarf those moved in the 2015 landslides. Dating (14C) of interlayered organic materials match three recorded earthquakes in 1100, 1255 and 1344 CE, each estimated to have been of magnitude 8 or above. The debris is dominated by carbonate rocks that probably came from the Annapurna massif some 60 km distant. They contain evidence of extreme pulverisation and occur in a series of interbeds some fine others dominated by clasts. The likelihood is that these are evidence of mass movement of a more extreme category than landslides and rockfalls: catastrophic debris flows or rock-ice avalanches involving, in total, 4 to 5 km3 of material.

Earthquake hazard news

Assessments of seismic risk have relied until recently on records of destructive earthquakes going back centuries and their relationship to tectonic features, mainly active faults. They usually predict up to 50 years ahead. The US Geological Survey has now shifted focus to very recent records mainly of small to medium tremors, some of which have appeared in what are tectonically stable areas as well as the background seismicity in tectonically restless regions. This enables the short-term risk (around one year) to be examined. To the scientists’ surprise, the new modelling completely changes regional maps of seismic risk. The probabilities in the short-term of potentially dangerous ground movements in 17 oil- and gas-rich areas rival those in areas threatened by continual, tectonic jostling, such as California. The new ‘hot spots’ relate to industrial activity, primarily the disposal of wastewater from petroleum operations by pumping it into deep aquifers.

USGS map highlighting short-term earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced earthquakes (source: US Geological Survey)
USGS map highlighting short-term earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced earthquakes (source: US Geological Survey)

Fluid injection increases hydrostatic pressure in aquifers and also in the spaces associated with once inactive fault and fracture systems. All parts of the crust are stressed to some extent but the presence of fluids and over-pressuring increases the tendency for rock failure. While anti-fracking campaigners have focussed partly on seismic risk – fracking has caused tremors around magnitudes 2 to 3 – the process is a rapid one-off injection involving small fluid volumes compared with petroleum waste-water disposal. All petroleum production carries water as well as oil and gas to wellheads. Coming from great depth it is formation water held in pores since sedimentary deposition, which is environmentally damaging because of its high content of dissolved salts and elevated temperature. Environmental protection demands that disposal must return it to depth.

The main worry is that waste water disposal might trigger movements with magnitudes up to 7.0: in 2011 a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit a town in oil-producing Oklahoma and damaged many buildings. Currently, US building regulations rely on earthquake risk maps that consider a 50-year timescale, but they take little account of industrially induced seismicity. So the new data is likely to cause quite a stir. These are changing times, however, as the oil price fluctuates wildly. So production may well shift from field to field seeking sustainable rates of profit, and induced seismicity may well change as a result.

None of these areas are likely to experience the horrors of the 25 April 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal. However, it also occurred in an area expected to be relatively stable compared with the rest of the Himalayan region. The only previous major tremor there was recorded in the 14th century. This supposedly ‘low-risk’ area overlies a zone in which small tremors or microearthquakes occur all the time. Such zones – and this one extends along much of the length of the Himalaya – seem to mark where fault depths are large enough for displacements to take place continually by plastic flow, thereby relieving stresses. Most of the large earthquakes have taken place south of the microseismic zone where the shallow parts of the Indian plate are brittle and have become locked. The recent event is raising concerns that it is a precursor of further large earthquakes in Nepal. Its capital Kathmandu is especially susceptible as it is partly founded on lake sediments that easily liquefy.

Note added: 13 May 2015. Nepal suffered another major shock (magnitude 7.3) on 12 May in the vicinity of Mount Everest. It too seems to have occurred in the zone of microearthquakes formerly thought to mark a zone where the crust fails continually bu plastic deformation thereby relieving stresses. Kathmandu was this time at the edge of the shake zone