Nepal quake’s biggest shakes relatively spread out

Minute measurements of ground movement links frequency to type of damage

Dharahara Tower before and after the 2015 Nepal Quake

SHAKEN APART  The April 25 Nepal earthquake toppled tall structures such as the 62-meter-tall Dharahara Tower, shown before and after the quake. Most of the earthquake’s waves were at relatively lower frequencies that are damaging to tall structures.

FROM LEFT: Oliphant/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Parazlaure/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The April 25 Nepal earthquake killed more than 8,000 people and caused several billion dollars in damage, but new research suggests the toll could have been a lot worse.

GPS readings taken during the quake indicate that most of the tremors vibrated through the ground as long shakes rather than quick pulses. That largely spared the low-lying buildings that make up much of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, geophysicists report online August 6 in Science. Those same low-frequency rumbles, though, toppled Kathmandu’s handful of larger buildings, such as the historic 62-meter tall Dharahara Tower.

Understanding why the fault produced a quake at such low frequencies could help seismologists better identify future seismic hazards, says Jean-Philippe Avouac of the University of Cambridge. “This could be some good news not only for this major fault, but also potentially for similar faults around the world.”

Nepal sits over a tectonic boundary where the Indian Plate slips under the Eurasian Plate. At places, the two plates snag together, building stress that abruptly releases as an earthquake (SN: 5/16/15, p. 12).

Earthquakes stronger than April’s magnitude 7.8 shakedown have hit Nepal before, including a magnitude 8.0 quake in 1934. Despite the recent quake’s feebler intensity, its trembles somehow destroyed large buildings that had previously endured mightier earthquakes.

Avouac and colleagues monitored April’s quake using a network of 35 solar-powered GPS stations, the first time such an accurate system was in place during a major quake on this type of fault. The stations measured ground movements five times each second. The earthquake shook most intensely at 0.25 hertz, or one full wave every four seconds, with only moderate shaking above 1 hertz, or one or more complete waves each second.

A building is most vulnerable when shook near its resonance frequency, a range where even small outside forces can result in big vibrations in the structure. Because taller structures have lower resonance frequencies, the April quake’s low-frequency rumbles caused larger buildings to sway and crumble while largely sparing smaller dwellings, the researchers found.

The low frequencies resulted from the smooth and relatively long duration of the tectonic slipping that initiated the quake, the researchers propose. The low-frequency waves then echoed across the region and produced protracted violent shaking.

Determining where future low-frequency quakes will strike could save lives by identifying which building types are most vulnerable to collapse, says geologist Kristin Morell of the University of Victoria in Canada. “These are things that should be built into building codes.” 

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