Among the many mysteries of our planet’s geology is why earthquakes occur in the middle of presumably stable tectonic plates. A project led by a group of University of Missouri-Columbia researchers has been awarded $2.16 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to bolster the collaborative efforts between the U.S. and China in determining the cause of intraplate earthquakes that have occurred in both countries.
Mian Liu, professor of geophysics in the College of Arts and Science, leads this multi-institutional study with a team of colleagues from MU’s Department of Geological Sciences. Those colleagues are: Associate Professor Eric Sandvol and Assistant Professors Francisco (Paco) Gomez and Milene Cormier. The MU team will work with its U.S. and Chinese partners to explore the fundamental physics that control intraplate earthquakes. Knowledge gained from North China will help in understanding earthquakes in the New Madrid area and other seismic zones in central and eastern U.S., as well as benefit the broader geosciences community through the production of data sets, computer models and curriculum materials.
“This is not a research project in the traditional sense,” Liu said. “Through the collaborative research, we want to provide our students with a unique international experience.”
Unlike interplate earthquakes in California and many other places where the earth’s crust is stressed by the relative motion of tectonic plates, which are pieces of the Earth’s rigid outer shell, intraplate quakes happen in the middle of presumably stable tectonic plates and thus cannot be readily explained. In the past seven centuries, more than 50 large earthquakes have struck North China. On July 28, 1976, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake killed 244,000 people and nearly wiped out the industrial city of Tangshan, about 200 miles southeast of Beijing. Intraplate earthquakes in the U.S. have not been as frequent but have been severe. In 1811 and 1812, a series of large earthquakes with estimated magnitudes above 7.0 occurred on the New Madrid faults in southeastern Missouri within the span of three months. The region remains seismically active today.
Liu and the MU team have been working with Chinese colleagues in a pilot study of North China earthquakes in recent years. This PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education) project will build a broad partnership to investigate what causes large intraplate quakes in North China and improve understanding of intraplate seismic activity in central and eastern United States. The U.S. partners include the University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado, North Carolina State University, U.S. Geological Survey, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), and UNAVCO. The Chinese partners include two top Chinese universities, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China Earthquake Administration.
“PIRE is a new NSF program intended to strengthen collaboration between U.S. and international institutions,” Liu said. “The long-term goal is to educate and train a new generation of globally engaged American scientists and engineers.”
About 15 graduate students, 20 undergraduate students and 50 science teachers from the Midwestern states around the New Madrid seismic region will participate in this project. Lloyd Barrow, professor of science education in MU’s College of Education, will assist the educational and outreach activity.
Underrepresented minority students will be recruited, and most student participants will travel to China to work with Chinese students and scientists. Liu said that this is a great time to collaborate with China on earthquake studies. In recent years, China has infused large amounts of equipment and funds into earthquake research that has caught the attention of the international geosciences community. This year, the National Science Foundation of China launched an ambitious research initiative with $20 million to study earth structure and earthquakes in North China. For this PIRE project, the Chinese partners will provide most of the field equipment, logistical support, and complementary expertise.
“MU has shown a very strong institutional support and commitment to this project,” Liu said. “We’ve received a lot of support and a lot of resources from the University community, and we hope to bring long-term benefit of international collaboration to our campus and community through this partnership. We want to better understand this type of earthquakes, because it’s particularly important to the state of Missouri.”