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Amazing 3-D images show how earthquakes warp the Earth's surface

Laser scans of the Earth's surface published in the journal Science reveal how earthquakes distort the planet's surface, showing exactly where the ground moved and by how much.  

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"This gives new insight into how faults link together to produce large earthquakes, and how geologic structures incrementally grow these events — for example, folding of rocks and growth of topography and basins around faults," Oskin told OurAmazingPlanet.

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The laser scan revealed warping of the ground surface next to the faults that previously could not easily be detected. For example, it revealed folding above the previously unknown Indiviso fault running beneath agricultural fields in the floodplain of the Colorado River. "This would be very hard to see in the field," Oskin said.

Using a virtual-reality facility at the University of California, Davis, the research team handled and viewed data from the survey to see exactly where the ground moved and by how much.

"We can immerse ourselves into the 3D data set, down to the individual point measurements — all 3.6 billion of them for the post-earthquake data set," Oskin said.

The scans revealed how seven of these small faults came together to cause a major earthquake.

"We can learn so much about how earthquakes work by studying fresh fault ruptures," Oskin said. "In this case, we have learned a great deal about how the rocks surrounding faults deform, which will give us better insight into how faults link together."

Scanning the San Andreas

Airborne LIDAR scans have also been conducted of the San Andreas system and other active faults in the western United States.

"We are already using these data to better document the prehistoric record of activity on these faults," Oskin said. "When an earthquake happens in one of these areas, there will be a new scan conducted and a comparison made. This comparison will be even more revealing than the one we published, because both data sets will be high resolution. In our case, the pre-earthquake data set was relatively low resolution."

Future work can also model the interactions of the various faults that slipped in the 2010 El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake, "to develop better projections of how future, complex multi-fault ruptures may occur," Oskin added.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Feb. 10 issue of the journal Science.

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