Dams and Earthquakes

Chinese scientist forewarned of deadly Sichuan quake

(March 30, 2009) The popular online media community AlterNet has unearthed another expert to join the scientific battle of opinion over what exactly caused the M7.9 earthquake that killed 80,000 people in China’s Sichuan province last May. This latest voice belongs to a Chinese geological scientist who successfully predicted the timing, magnitude and location of the quake weeks before it happened.

Geng Qingguo is a former researcher in the China seismology bureau and vice president of the Chinese Geophysical Society’s Natural Disaster Prediction Committee. Known in China for years as revered seismologist, Geng first achieved notoriety for predicting several weeks in advance the occurrence of the 1976 Tangshang earthquake, by far China’s deadliest with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. He sent warnings for the government to evacuate areas he expected to be hit the hardest, but his warnings were ignored and China experienced the most destructive earthquake in its history. The event itself took place within the specific location and timeline that Geng Qingguo had originally predicted, confirming the accuracy of his foresight.

Geng came out of retirement last year solely to try and warn his government a second time of an impending seismic disaster, barely two weeks before the deadly 12 May date. He submitted an official report to government officials on April 30th 2008 in which he predicted that an earthquake measuring above 7.0 on the Richter scale would occur in the Aba region, where Sichuan is located, between May 2008 and April 2009. The report even specified that the earthquake would most likely occur within 10 days of May 8th. Again officials sat on his predictions and no mention of them was made in the Chinese press.

Immediately following the Sichuan quake, his warnings were in hindsight proven to be deadly accurate and he did receive some media attention, though almost exclusively from sources outside of mainland China. Geng fell out of the media spotlight quickly both in and outside of China and there has since been no mention of him in any news items anywhere (save of course, for this one).

Given recent revelations, Geng’s voice may be heard again soon.

The suggestion that the Zipingpu dam reservoir, which lies just 5.5 kilometres from the epicentre of the Wenchuan quake, potentially induced the earthquake was first proposed in the weeks following the disaster by Chinese geological engineer Fan Xiao in an interview translated by Three Gorges Probe and has since received international support. Most notably from Christian Klose, a geophysical hazards research scientist from Columbia University in New York. It was Klose’s endorsement that sparked the renewed media interest in Fan Xiao’s theory.

The decades-old geological theory of reservoir-induced seismicity (RIS) provides the scientific basis for how a large dam reservoir can exert pressure on underlying fault lines that can trigger seismic activity.

Since Klose threw his support behind Fan Xiao, scientists have been debating whether RIS from Zipingpu directly induced the Sichuan earthquake or if the 320 million tonnes of water in its reservoir merely impacted the magnitude, location and/or timing of the quake. However, the Chinese government has been withholding access to crucial Zipingpu reservoir and seismic data that would allow for a proper scientific investigation of that possibility.

Geng Qingguo’s perspective on the forecasting of earthquakes would likely prove a worthwhile addition to that debate. Determining whether his eerily exact predictions were based on analyzing the activities of man or of nature will make scientists better equipped to answer a far more controversial question: was the most destructive earthquake to strike China in decades the fault of nature, or of man? Perhaps both deserve to share the blame, but until an investigation is allowed to proceed unhindered, this is all just the science of ‘best guess’.

Jameson Berkow, Probe International Editorial, March 30, 2009

 Learn more about reservoir-induced-seismicity (RIS), Read more from Probe International on the Zipingpu debate here and here (also here)
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