March 15, 2011

The Scientist: Prof. Allmendinger ’75 Highlights Importance of Earthquake Geology

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Prof. Richard Allmendinger ’75 describes the connections between earthquake size, corruption, poverty and their impacts.

Brief, yet powerful, earthquakes are one of the largest natural catastrophes on Earth. As seen recently in Japan and Chile, earthquakes have the potential to create massive devastation, although many  people remain uneducated as to how these natural phenomena occur.Prof. Richard Allmendinger ’75, earth and atmospheric sciences, has been working with the Cornell Andes Project for the last decade. He is also the associate dean of the College of Engineering. Focusing mainly on Chile, he and several students study individual earthquakes and their long-term history using measurements from GPS satellites and field work on fault lines.The science behind earthquakes depends much on the studying of these fault lines, which are created by large fractures on the Earth’s crust. In both Chile and Japan, such fractures are known as plate boundaries, as they are divisions between two enormous tectonic plates. Most of the time, the boundary between these two plates is “frozen shut,” having enough friction in order to prevent them from sliding. However, as the plates constantly move toward each other, the stress on that fault plane begins to accumulate and eventually overpowers friction causing the plates to move and create earthquakes.When asked why he chose to look at  the region specifically, Allmendinger explained that northern Chile is the only region within South America that has not experienced a large earthquake in more than 100 years.“When is one going to happen? We don’t know because earthquakes are very difficult to predict in terms of exactly when they are going to happen,” he said. However, he said the likelihood of an earthquake occurring becomes more and more likely every day. Through field work and studying cracks in the ground as indicators previous earthquake size, Allmendinger and his team are able to  address earthquake size. They predict an earthquake of magnitude 8.6-8.8 will most likely occur in northern Chile.Allmendinger finds the relationship between poverty, corruption and other factors particularly interesting when examining the effects earthquakes. For example, when comparing the Haiti and Chile earthquakes from 2011 and 2010, Chile was 500 times larger in terms of energy release. Yet there was much greater loss of life in Haiti than there was in Chile.“A lot of that was simply due to the level of poverty,” he said. Chile is both wealthier and less corrupt than Haiti.“The largest earthquakes aren’t the ones that kill the most people. The ones that kill the most people tend to be in countries with high levels of corruption,” Allmendinger said. He explained how countries with lower GDP and higher corruption face the highest death tolls –– with the exception of the Indian Ocean earthquake.Moreover, big earthquakes in developed countries produce the most financial damage.  The damage produced by the 2010 earthquake in Chile cost the country about 10 percent of its GDP. In fact, one of the most expensive earthquakes in North America was the North Ridge earthquake in Los Angeles, Calif., which had a magnitude 6.8-7.When he is not researching earthquakes, Allmendinger teaches students about Earth’s sustainability and encourages them to make intelligent decisions on earth science topics.“I believe that the 21st century will be the century of earth sciences because so much of what humans do depends on earth and how earth works,” he said.  Allmendinger claims that there are five crises we will all face in our lifetime: energy, climate change, freshwater, soil and natural hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis. His course, EAS 1101: Earth Sciences in the 21st Century, examines all the huge, earth science related issues that affect society today.Using iClickers, the class is encouraged to make educated decisions and vote on ideas that are relevant to current environmental issues. Such conversations are often sparked by topics such as “Is New Orleans sustainable? And what should we do with it?” Through these ideas, the students are then led through discussions, of for example, the effects of climate change on the Mississippi Delta and are forced to consider the social responsibility of sustaining a city that is practically doomed to eventually be submerged by rising sea levels.                        His focus on sustainability is also largely focused on energy-related issues.  He explains how the current worldwide consumption of energy is 13.5 Terawatts or a trillion watts.) Assuming a worldwide standard of living current with Equatorial Guinea, by 2050 worldwide energy consumption is expected to rise to more than double that amount: 27.6 TW.With traditional oil and gas in decline, humans must find new energy sources to fuel energy demands. Even if a power plant was built on Earth every two days, it would only be able to produce one-third of the energy needed to reach 27.6 TW. Although green technology such as geothermal, wind and solar energy may contribute to cleaner energy, they are ultimately still too underdeveloped to be able to meet such a high energy demand.According to Allmendinger, people cannot make intelligent decisions on questions of energy and climate change if they aren’t educated about those topics.With all these inevitable crises surrounding us, the real solution lies in making educated decisions on our future impact to the environment. “Learning about the earth is one of the most important things you can do right now,” he explained.

Original Author: Laura Comin