NASA Jet Studies Haiti's Fault Lines for Signs of Further Trouble

By Smriti Rao | January 28, 2010 5:57 pm

tp-nasa-radar-jetNASA is sending a radar-equipped jet to conduct flights over Haiti and the Dominican Republic to capture 3-D images that could help predict future earthquakes. An estimated 170,000 people were killed in the 7.0 earthquake that battered Haiti on January 12. Unfortunately, experts predict more quakes as the country is situated in a seismically volatile zone.

A Gulfstream III jet is now on its way to map Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola. The Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR, was originally on its way to Central America to study volcanoes, forests, and Mayan ruins, but on its way south it will now also study Hispaniola’s fault lines.

The principal investigator for the Hispaniola overflights, Paul Lundgren, said the aircraft will take images of the Earth’s surface and other changes associated with the Haiti earthquake. He said NASA will then analyze the 3-D results for features that could signal “aftershocks, earthquakes that might be triggered by the main earthquake farther down the fault line, and the potential for landslides” [Wired.com]. Lundgren expects the future earthquakes to be “either along adjacent sections of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault that was responsible for the main earthquake, or on other faults in northern Hispaniola, such as the Septentrional fault”[Wired.com]. NASA has used this kind of radar-equipped jet in the past to examine California’s dangerous San Andreas fault.

UAVSAR flies at 41,000 feet and sends microwaves, from a pod located on the aircraft’s belly, down to the ground. It then records the returning signal. The differences in the times it takes waves to return from points on the ground to the plane gives information about the topography. By hitting the same target from different angles as the plane flies overhead, a 3-D image can be made. Very precise details about ground motion can be calculated by flying over the same area later, giving scientists information about strain buildup on a fault [Wired.com].

Haiti is located on a part of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone–a fault that had been building up strain over the last 240 years. Scientists were expecting an earthquake in that region, but no one could predict exactly when and where. But about 100 miles to the northeast is a long segment of a similar fault, the Septentrional, that has not had a quake in 800 years. Researchers have estimated that a rupture along that segment — and again, they have no idea when one might occur — could result in a magnitude 7.5 quake that could cause severe damage in the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city, Santiago, and the surrounding Cibao Valley, together home to several million people [The New York Times] . The data collected by the UAVSAR is expected to help scientists study the potential for future earthquakes on this particular fault. The 3-D images are due to be released to the public in a few weeks.

Related Content:
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80beats: Satellite Images Show the Extent of Haiti’s Devastation
80beats: Haiti Earthquake May Have Released 250 Years of Seismic Stress
80beats: Science Via Twitter: Post-Earthquake Tweets Can Provide Seismic Data
80beats: A Major Quake Could Release Plutonium from Los Alamos Lab
The Intersection: Ways to Support the Relief Effort in Haiti

Image: NASA/JPL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space, Technology
  • Wendy

    I sure hope they send the jet to fault lines that are expected to spaz out, and haven’t done so recently. The Pacific Northwest, for example.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Funny you should mention the Pacific NW, Wendy. I just saw an article in Nature News about new underwater sensors that are being rigged up over the Cascadia fault line. It says the project (funded by federal stimulus money) will “deploy 60 ocean-bottom seismometers off the coasts of Oregon and Washington, at depths of between about 300 metres and 1 kilometre.”

  • http://discover bill kreer

    THERE IS ONE QUESTION THAT ALWAYS ENTER’S MY MIND; WHENEVER I VIEW A NEWS REPORT OF ANY EARTHQUAKES. SINCE WE ARE SEEING SUCH DRASTIC CHANGES IN THE EARTH’S CLIMATE DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING; AND MANY ISLANDS THAT USED TO BE THERE ;NOW COVERED BY SEAWATER ; PLUS JUST RECENTLY BEFORE THE LAST 8.8 EARTHQUALE IN CHILE ; I READ OF A HUGE ICEBERG ; THE SIZE OF THE COUNTRY OF LUXENBURG ;CRASHING INTO THE ANTARTIC MAJOR ICESHELF AND BREAKING OFF ANOTHER HUGE ICEBERG THAT MEASSURED 24 MILES WIDW BY 48 MILES LONG . COULD IT BE POSSIBLE THAT SUCH A HUGE CHANGE OF WEIGHT ON THE POLAR CAPS AND TECTONIC PLATES WOULD CAUSE A SHIFT OF FORCE ON THE FAULT LINE NEXT TO CHILE. AND WAS THERE ANOTHER HUGE CHANGE OF WEIGTH LOSS OR GAIN (( SUCH AS THE NEWLY ADDED WEIGHT OF THE WATER AND LOST WEIGTH OF THE ICE ELSEWHERE )) ON THE EARTH’S TECTONIC PLATE BEFORE THE HAITIAN DEVESTATING EARTHQUAKE. PLUS ALL THE OTHE EARTHQUAKES AROUND THE WORLD. COULD YOUR RESEARCH GROUP PLEASE EXPLORE THIS; WITH ALL YOUR RECORDS AND VAST SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNICAL INFORMATION ON THE TECTONIC PLATES. SINCE ACTION EQUALS REACTION IT COULD VERY POSSIBLY BE TRUE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME AND EXPERTISE, BILL KREER

  • Tom

    yea, lets us any event that has anything to do with the earth to generate more money for those global warming fanatics

  • http://www.a2q.com Jay Warner

    entry in error.

  • http://www.a2q.com Jay Warner

    “I can’t help it,” dept. 1) The huge ice shelf is not changing its weight against the earth – it was floating to start with, and floating after braking off. A floating boat does not put any force (weight) on the bottom of a lake; neither did or does the iceberg.

    2) An iceberg 24 by 48 miles is huge, as icebergs go. And it floats, so its relative density is less than 1. The iceberg(s) are well over 1,000 miles from Chile, and much further from Haiti. The mass of a chunk of earth, say 1,00 yards deep by 24 miles wide by whatever it takes to get to Haiti, is far, far greater than that of the iceberg. Compared to the earth’s crust, icebergs are tiny.

    What might be the _mechanism_ by which a chunk of iceberg, even one hitting an attached ice shelf, could possibly trigger, much less generate, sliding of tectonic plates? Perhaps some researcher’s could think on this for an afternoon, but I would rather have them mapping the fault lines.

    As for expense, perhaps some people would prefer to have no work on earth quakes and fault lines. Then we could be more surprised when one of them takes down our buildings.

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