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Scientists Study Past In Hopes of Being Step Ahead of Future Earthquakes

Dave Schumaker
A seismogram from a M5.0 earthquake

Three earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater have shook parts of the American west in the last month, and several temblors hit Jamaica as well. However, those events were relatively mild compared to the recent spate of major earthquakes in places like Japan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan quake that has left hundreds dead.

In fact if it seems to you that the earth has seen quite a lot of major seismic activity in recent years, you're in the good company of scientists. One of the leading centers for research into these quakes is located not along the San Andreas Fault, but at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Harold Tobin is one of those scientists looking closely at seismic events in the Department of Geoscience.

"We need to be able to study them, so they're very unfortunate," says Tobin. "But having a few occur has allowed us to gain a window into the processes that are going on that hopefully in the future will really mitigate those."

Tobin explains that earthquakes are unlike any other natural disaster in the sense that there is no short term ability to detect what may be about to happen.

"Right at their edges (the plates) are getting stuck together, and so they in a very tiny way deform internally building up a strain. And when the strain breaks, that's when the earthquake is actually happening," he says. "That might take several hundred years to build up, but gets released over a matter of seconds or minutes."

Harold Tobin will be the next speaker in the Milwaukee Public Museum's Science on Tap series, discussing "A Decade of Mega-Earthquakes and Deadly Tsunamis" on Thursday, October 8th.