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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.  

Image

Earthquake surface ruptures cut and warp the ground in this 3-D rendering of the post-earthquake topographic survey colored by elevation change during the earthquake. Image generated in Crusta (keckcaves.org) with 2.5x vertical exaggeration.

Science/AAAS

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Laser scans of Earth's land surface taken from aircraft have now yielded the most comprehensive before-and-after picture of an earthquake yet, scientists revealed today (Feb. 9).

These kinds of scans before and after large quakes may help reveal where exactly the quakes ruptured the Earth down to a scale of just a few inches, which may help experts prepare for the hazards of such quakes, researchers said.

Scientists from the United States, Mexico and China working with the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping flew over the area struck by the magnitude-7.2 El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake in northern Mexico on April 4, 2010. The quake produced a 74-mile-long (120 kilometer) rupture through Baja California, Mexico.

This earthquake did not happen on a major fault, like the San Andreas, but ran through a series of smaller faults in the Earth's crust. Over the past century, most of the damaging earthquakes on continents have arisen from such multiple-fault ruptures. [10 Biggest Earthquakes in History]

"We can recognize their activity from how they disrupt the landscape, but we don't have a good way of assessing the potential size of earthquakes they produce, because they tend to rupture together with other, nearby faults in a complicated way," said researcher Michael Oskin, a geologist at the University of California, Davis. "These types of earthquakes can be especially dangerous if they occur near an urban area that is not well prepared."

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