Seismologist Warns of Future Devastating Quakes

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 13 November 2012

RANGOON—In the wake of Sunday’s powerful earthquake that rattled Upper Burma, a seismologist has warned that regions south of the country’s second largest city Mandalay, including the capital Naypyidaw, remain vulnerable to potent future tremors.

Soe Thura Tun, the secretary of Burma’s Seismological Committee, said central areas are prone to seismic activity mainly because of the Sagaing Fault—a 1,200 km (750-mile) major break that transects the country from north to south, passing through major cities before dipping off into the Gulf of Martaban.

Despite their perilous positions, historical records show that nowhere along the line has experienced any major tremor since 1930 when a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Pegu (Bago), a city 80 km (50 miles) from Rangoon. The disaster claimed more than 500 lives.

“According to geological records, a powerful quake tends to strike over every 100 years or so. To our surprise, there’s no single historic quake in the regions ranging from south of Mandalay to Naypyidaw, even though the area is sitting on the moving fault,” said Soe Thura Tun. “It can be interpreted that a quake is likely to hit the region.”

Although plates along the fault did not appear to move regularly, the seismologist explained that pressure will inevitably build up when such giant forces are pitted against each other. Eventually, the land masses will shift and an earthquake occurs. The longer the pressure builds up, the severer the quake usually is.

“Given a long absence of quakes in the region, it should be taken for granted that there will be lots of pressure there. So, if a quake hits, it will be quite bad,” he added.

Regarding the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Upper Burma on Sunday, the seismologist explained that the disaster is second in the region after the deadly 1956 earthquake in Sagaing—a town famous for its hills bejeweled with pagodas and Buddhist monasteries 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Mandalay. Both affected areas are part of the same segment of the 10 that comprise the entire Sagaing Fault.

Soe Thura Tun also warned that even though Rangoon, the country’s business hub, is not right on the fault line, it could experience serious repercussions if a quake occurred on one of the segments that lie just 20 km (12 miles) east of the former capital.

“We have a saying that a quake itself never kills people but man-made structures do,” he said. “It is dangerous as we have high apartment buildings in Rangoon. We can’t forecast earthquakes. So all we can do is aid preparedness in response to them.”

Currently, Burma has only installed eight continuous Global Positioning System stations under foreign assistance to monitor the seismic activity of the Sagaing Fault.