Reporter 463, 12 March 2001

Science in a disaster zone

A Leeds academic was one of a team of British scientists who visited the site of the devastating landslide at Las Colinas in El Salvador, as part of a research project to determine the causes of the disaster and help prevent future tragedies.

Dr Bill Murphy of the School of Earth Sciences is looking at ways to predict where such earthquake-triggered landslides might strike, and how to reduce their effects.

The landslides occur in a type of volcanic rock known there as ‘tierra blanca’. It has a distinctive open pore structure, and when shaken during the quake, the scientists believe the water pressure inside the rock forces the grains apart, causing the substance to behave like a liquid.

The scientists aim to create a form of hazard mapping to identify high-risk areas, and draw up recommendations, such as maximum weights of buildings and limits on deforestation. Links with the Chamber of Construction in El Salvador mean that the findings should be built into future construction practices.

Dr Murphy and his colleagues hope to gain further funding to extend this vital research, both in El Salvador and in other earthquake zones around the world where similar landslides occur.

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