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3-D imaging helps UC geologists study quakes

August 13, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck about 230 miles off the southern coast of Guam on Saturday morning but many residents didn't even notice.While the world saw the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake on TV, geologists at UC Davis saw it through new 3-D virtual reality equipment that looks a lot like a video game.

Using three walls to create interactive images gathered by laser-light pulses, they are able to study how earth surfaces get broken during earthquakes.

"We can make geological observations without going to the field," said Eric Cowgill, Ph.D., UC Davis geologist.

In fact, scientists can run, or even fly, through several miles of land in a matter of seconds on the screen, which can take hours or days on foot.

The hope is this new visualization will improve the understanding of how faults work and behave and allow better prediction of a fault's seismic hazard.

Data from the Haiti and Mexicali earthquakes are giving scientists a better sense of what could be possible in California.

Professor Michael Oskin, for instance, can actually measure how much Wallace Creek along the San Andreas Fault has changed with each shaker.

"Every earthquake takes this little stream and drags it along the fault a little more," said Oskin. "This is a way for us to trying to infer what can happen in the future from the recent past.

"That goes directly into how we calculate seismic hazard, which ultimately affects say, insurance rates on your house, or whether you're going to build a nuclear plant," said Oskin.

As cool as this is in the earthquake world, it still doesn't do the one thing we'd all like to know: when the Big One will hit.


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