News Tip: Catastrophic Earthquake Possible for East Coast, Expert Says

August 25, 2011

Henri Gavin specializes in developing computer models of seismic activity and is devising systems to protect fragile objects and equipment from earthquakes

“Earthquake interest and preparedness always increases after an event. What many may not realize is that regions of the central and eastern United States are at significant risk of a catastrophic earthquake.” said Henri Gavin, W. H. Gardner Jr. Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “When considering earthquakes and how best to minimize their damage, it is best to take the long view.”

As Gavin sees it, uncertainty is the issue -- it’s not so critical that earthquakes are relatively rare in the eastern U.S., but that so little is known about the seismic activity going on underground.

“The key question is how are we as a society to decide to mitigate the possible catastrophic hazards that will most not likely occur within our lifetimes. It is entirely possible that somewhere east of the Mississippi River there could be an earthquake as damaging as the ones that hit Japan and New Zealand earlier this year.”

Henri GavinHe cited magnitude 7+ earthquakes that have occurred during the 19th century in the New Madrid area of Missouri and Charleston, S.C. The recent Virginia earthquake shows clearly the very wide extent of shaking typical of central and eastern US earthquakes. The 1811-1812 New Madrid, Missouri, earthquake sequence consisted of four earthquakes in three months having magnitudes of 7 to 8, and had about 1,000 times the intensity of the Virginia earthquake

The chance of a repeat of this kind of earthquake in that region is of major concern. Gavin is currently conducting research in Christchurch, New Zealand, on the effects of the 7.1 and 6.3-magnitude-level earthquakes that hit in September and February, so he has seen first-hand the effects of large earthquakes.

Gavin, who specializes in developing computer models of seismic activity is devising systems to protect fragile objects and equipment from earthquakes, can’t wait to get his hands on the data generated by this week’s earthquake.

“Our understanding about the factors involved on the east coast is dominated by uncertainty. Anything we can do to help us make better decisions can be very important in mitigating any consequences. This new data should be invaluable as we learn more about east coast seismic activity and update our models.”