Why Earthquakes Are Growing Deadlier

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Earthquakes and other natural disasters are deadlier and more destructive than they were a couple of hundred years ago. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Roger Bilham, a seismologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder to find out why.


Earthquakes and other natural disasters are deadlier and more destructive than they were a couple of hundred years ago. To find out why, we've called Roger Bilham. He's a seismologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Bilham.

Dr. ROGER BILHAM (Seismologist, University of Colorado at Boulder): Good morning.

HANSEN: You've been studying the effect, the impact of earthquakes on human beings. What have you discovered?

Dr. BILHAM: The problem is this - that the Earth is continuously being shaken by earthquakes. And the world population in the last 100 years has increased by about a factor of 10. So the former villages that now represent megacities are being shaken. And in the developing nations, the buildings that have been constructed in the last 100 years are often not built correctly. They've been built without any thought about earthquakes in their future.

HANSEN: And so, in other words, where there are major centers of population, if buildings have been built to withstand earthquakes that are common to that area, I think it said, lethality is often a function of masonry.

Dr. BILHAM: Well, yeah. I mean, you can see from the last two earthquakes in Chile and in Haiti, there's a remarkable difference. In Chile they have a building code. They enforce it. And they're being frequently reminded that earthquakes are occurring in their country because they're continuously shaken and damage results. And as this damage occurs, they improve the building code and so on.

In Haiti, there hasn't been an earthquake for a couple of hundred years and they've had other things on their mind - poverty, the economy is terrible. Even if somebody had said: You've really got to rebuild Port-au-Prince, nothing simple could have happened, and it would have cost a huge amount of money - not as much as rebuilding the whole city as happening right now.

HANSEN: Quite a bit of attention is being paid to earthquakes now, simply because there have been many of them. Is this coincidence or convergence?

Dr. BILHAM: We think it's coincidence. You tend to get clusters of earthquakes, you know, every 100 years or so that looks like the world is falling apart. But, really, it isn't. We think it's just the normal statistical fluctuation in large events, simply because large events and events that hit cities are kind of irregular in nature.

HANSEN: Roger Bilham is a seismologist at the University of Colorado. Thank you very much.

Professor BILHAM: Thanks, Liane. Bye.

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