Can Earthquakes Be Predicted & Planned For?

Nearly 50 earthquake experts were in Nepal the week before a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck just outside the capital city of Kathmandu in one of the most earthquake-prone valleys in the world. James Jackson, a seismologist who heads the University of Cambridge's Earth Sciences Department as well as Earthquakes Without Frontiers, had begun holding meetings discuss the fate and future of Kathmandu in the face of earthquakes just one week prior. Jackson and other seismologists were expecting a major seismic event in Nepal to unfold in the future. Still, he says he was surprised that such an incident occurred so soon. Jackson told NBC News:

It was sort of a nightmare waiting to happen. Physically and geologically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen. I was walking through that very area where that earthquake was and I thought at the very time that the area was heading for trouble.

Jackson and other experts, including Geohazards International Southeast Asia Coordinator Hari Ghi, say that earthquakes themselves aren't inherently devastating but rather the human elements of mass infrastructure as well as high population concentration in earthquake-prone regions cause the devastation. Ghi described the country's attempts at earthquake preparedness: "They knew they had a problem but it was so large they didn't where to start, how to start."

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According to an Al Jazeera timeline of the five most recent prominent earthquakes in the region, the 1934 earthquake that ranked at a magnitude of 8.0 managed to destroy entire cities, including Kathmandu. This weekend's 7.8-magnitude earthquake has already elicited a 6.7 magnitude aftershock, which has only further damaged structures and caused a massive avalanche at Mt. Everest.

As there are aftershocks, so are there foreshocks, which precede the primary, strongest earthquake. Using data gathered prior to an earthquake that struck Napa, California, just last August, scientists at UC Berkeley were alerted to an impending quake through primary waves from foreshocks registering on their ShakeAlert system. Similar Earthquake Early Warning systems have been implemented in Japan and China as well as major cities worldwide, including Mexico City and Istanbul.

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Currently, Nepal has no such Earthquake Early Warning system. More than 2.5 million people live in Kathmandu, primarily in structures that lack seismic retrofitting meant to withstand some earthquake damage. A neglected building code that has been late to be implemented along with inheritance laws that have physically split buildings into far less durable subsections has weakened many structures as well. Nepal has been ranked 11th worldwide in terms of earthquake vulnerability by the World Bank and is described as "highly susceptible" to climate change, and at specific risk for droughts and flooding.

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