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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Shedding more light on major quakes

Earthquake surface ruptures cut and warp the ground in this 3-D rendering of the post-earthquake topographic survey colored by elevation change during the earthquake. Image generated in Crusta (keckcaves.org) with 2.5x vertical exaggeration.
[Image © Science/AAAS]

Using a technique known as Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, before and after large earthquakes might help researchers pinpoint the places where those quakes break the ground wide open, according to a new study.

This LIDAR technique uses light—usually pulses from a laser—to measure the distance to (or the properties of) a particular target. So, in order to use this kind of "laser radar" to study earthquakes, researchers just aim it at the ground.

Michael Oskin from the University of California, along with colleagues from around the world, used LIDAR to examine the ground over the site of the major El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake that rocked northern Mexico back in 2010. This particular earthquake produced a 74 mile-long crack in the Earth.

The researchers studied LIDAR results from back in 2006, four years before the quake happened, and then compared them to LIDAR results from after the quake. By doing so, Oskin and his team were able to see exactly how the earthquake had altered the surface of the Earth. The researchers even discovered new faults, or cracks in underground rocks, that had not been recognized before.

According to Oskin and the other researchers, LIDAR should be used more often—along with seismic studies of rocks beneath the planet's surface—to study earthquakes. It may eventually help experts prepare for the risks associated with large earthquakes, they say.