We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Haiti Earthquake May Have Released 250 Years of Seismic Stress

By Andrew Moseman
Jan 13, 2010 11:04 PMNov 20, 2019 3:24 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

As Haiti reels from yesterday's massive earthquake and its continued aftershocks, and nations rush to put rescue efforts together, scientists analyzing the seismic event say this disaster may have been a long time coming.

The earthquake in Haiti had a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 and it appeared to have occurred along a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, scientists say [AP]

. This fault, called the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault, may have been slowly building up pressure since the major 1760 earthquake that struck Haiti.

"It's been locked solid for about the last 250 years," said Dr Roger Musson from the British Geological Survey (BGS). "It's been gathering stress all that time as the plates move past each other, and it was really just a matter of time before it released all that energy" [BBC News]

. Chillingly, scientists led by Paul Mann warned just two years ago that such a massive quake could strike Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. But there wasn't much the impoverished Caribbean nation could do with that information, Mann said:

"The problem with these kinds of strikes is that they can remain quiescent -- dormant -- for hundreds of years," he said Tuesday evening. "So it's hard to predict when they'll occur" [CNN]

. The BBC reports that the fault system of which Enriquillo-Plantain is a part normally moves less than an inch per year as the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates slide by each other, but this earthquake may have caused the earth's surface along the fault line to offset by as much as three feet. The fact that the Enriquillo-Plantain appears to have released all its fury at once raises further worry for people living near strike-slip fault zones—California's San Andres fault also falls under this category. However, Caribbean geology expert Grenville Draper says that the Hispaniola fault system doesn't behave exactly like California's. The movement along the Hispaniola fault

is relatively small compared with plates moving underground in California, Draper said. The effect would be less-frequent earthquakes, but relatively large ones when they do occur [Miami Herald]

. Related Content: 80beats: Science Via Twitter: Post-Earthquake Tweets Can Provide Seismic Data 80beats: Major Earthquakes Can Weaken Faults Around the Globe 80beats: A Major Quake Could Release Plutonium from Los Alamos Lab The Intersection: Ways to Support the Relief Effort in Haiti

Image: Wikimedia Commons / The Weatherman

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.