Seismologist: China’s Quake Severe But Not Unusual

BY Larisa Epatko  April 14, 2010 at 3:17 PM EST

Western China, where a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Wednesday, is home to one of the most active systems of fault lines in the world, according to U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Walter Mooney.

A series of temblors shook the sparsely populated area of Qinghai Province in the Tibetan plateau, killing at least 400 people and injuring 10,000.

Panicked people fled into the streets, and many students were reportedly trapped in collapsed school buildings. Hundreds of soldiers, police and other emergency workers scoured debris looking for survivors.

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“The earthquake that happened yesterday is one that we can anticipate that will occur about one or two per year,” Mooney said. “Not unusual, but they really need to improve the design of the buildings so the people are not as adversely affected by these, what you might call, anticipated earthquakes in the Tibetan plateau.”

A seismic engineer can easily build a secure structure of steel or reinforced concrete to withstand a 6.9-magnitude quake, he continued. “Unfortunately, using local, indigenous materials and owner-designed structures, you end up with very fragile structures that are easily toppled down by an earthquake of this strength.”

Another major earthquake that hit the Sichuan province of western China in May 2008, killed more than 68,000 people, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Both quakes were part of the same system of faults, but the Sichuan quake was a north-south trending fault, while the one in the Tibetan plateau ran east to west, Mooney said.