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29-Aug-2016 13:16
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In The Spotlight

Editor's Note: Staff members at EurekAlert! Chinese extend their deepest sympathies to all those who have been affected by the devastating earthquake in China. The following news article from ScienceNOW provides further information about the disaster.

Chinese Quake a Mega-Catastrophe

By Richard A. Kerr

Researchers fear that the magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck near the major city of Chengdu on May 12 will easily be China's biggest killer since 1976's Tangshan quake, conservatively estimated to have taken 250,000 lives.

A husband kisses his pregnant wife after Monday’s earthquake in Sichuan Province, China. (Photo courtesy of Jane Liu)

By Thursday evening, Chinese officials and rescue workers said the death count could exceed 50,000 in Sichuan province alone, with an official death count of 20,000, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency.

"I would think there's going to be horrific loss of life in this one," says seismologist Lucile Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office in Pasadena, California. The all-too-familiar combination of millions of people living by a major fault rupture in quake-vulnerable structures makes for an inevitably bad outcome, she says.

The Eastern Sichuan quake ruptured about 275 kilometers of a fault running northeastward between the easternmost mountains of the Tibetan Plateau and the densely populated Sichuan Basin. Chengdu, population 11 million, lies about 100 kilometers southeast of the epicenter. Jones studied the fault 25 years ago as a major threat because plate motions are pushing the mountains in the west upward and to the east along the thrust fault and over the basin. "This is the big earthquake for Sichuan," she says. "It's like San Francisco or Los Angeles having its big one."

According to data compiled by USGS in the aftermath of the quake, millions of people suffered strong shaking that would have caused heavy damage. USGS calculates that a total of 6.2 million people would have felt severe to extreme shaking that could cause heavy to very heavy damage to structures vulnerable to seismic shaking. Many structures in China are vulnerable, Jones notes. Another 11.7 million people would have felt very strong shaking capable of moderate to heavy damage to vulnerable structures. The 1976 quake-- a magnitude-7.8-- struck the city of Tangshan (population 1.5 million), leaving two buildings standing, Jones says. If that's any guide, Sichuan has "got to be really bad," she says.

Richard A. Kerr is a staff writer for ScienceNOW, Science magazine's daily news website.