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  • Chile to open up quake data to global community

[SANTIAGO] Chilean seismologists studying the massive earthquake that hit the country last week (27 February) have decided to share their data with scientists around the world to aid natural disaster mitigation.

Teams of geologists, seismologists, engineers and other specialists from Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States will arrive in Chile in the next few days to collect and analyse valuable data from the fifth biggest earthquake ever recorded.

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake — which was followed by a tsunami — occurred along a 500-kilometre  fault line where the oceanic Nazca tectonic plate is slipping beneath the continental South America plate. This is where 80 per cent of Chile's 16 million people live. Five days on, the death toll is estimated to be almost 800.

"What we can learn from [the earthquake] will be useful not only for Chile, but for the whole world," Jaime Campos, a seismologist at the University of Chile, told SciDev.Net. "We have decided to share with the whole scientific community the data that we are gathering."

He added that the earthquake was expected — even though its magnitude was surprising — and instruments had been monitoring the area.

Campos warned in a 2008 paper that a "worst case scenario" earthquake of magnitude 8–8.5 was a possibility for the area close to the epicentre of last week's earthquake as strain had been accumulating on the fault since the last large earthquake in 1835.

Regarding the risk of other groups publishing the country's own data before they do, he said: "Good research will win — we want to send a signal, showing the scientific community that nowadays research on natural disasters requires [an open] attitude".

The teams will work together to install cutting edge instruments — such as those that measure the speed at which the ground is moving and deforming — in the affected zone.

"This information will enable the design of contingency plans and disaster mitigation around the world," said Campos.

Engineers will examine how most of the buildings in the affected areas remained upright, said Rodolfo Saragoni, an engineering expert in the department of civil engineering at the University of Chile.

"Experts from abroad are interested in studying buildings where we had instruments, such as accelerographs, to measure the power of the earthquake. This is the first time that we could record motion not only at ground level, but also underground and on the top of buildings complying with building regulations."

He added: "This data will be useful to compare countries' norms, improve earthquake codes and recommendations, and minimise damage in the future, both in the infrastructure of buildings and the goods inside them".

The earthquake has highlighted the country's lack of seismologists and seismological capacity, said Campos. He said that building an effective academic programme in this area will take a "decade or two" and require national support. But he remained optimistic. "We expect that within the following years this [programme] will become an attraction for young researchers from other countries to study here."