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October 10, 2007

Peeking Beneath Mount Everest

Noted geologist Anne Sheehan to explain how looking deep beneath the Himalaya sheds light on earthquakes.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Quelling her nerves while lifting off in a plane from a mountain ridge. Checking her scientific equipment for nests of cobras.

Those actions were just a hint of the many challenges faced by geologist Anne Sheehan when she began recording activity beneath the mountains in the Himalaya in an effort to shed light on earthquakes.

Sheehan, a professor of geophysics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, will discuss her work in eastern Nepal and southern Tibet at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23, in McConnell Hall, Room 103. The session is free and open to the public.

Earlier this decade, Sheehan studied the Himalaya, a mountain range that includes the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, taking detailed images of colliding rock formations deep below the surface of the earth. Her talk is titled “Seeing Beneath Mt. Everest: Probing a Breeding Ground of Destructive Earthquakes.”

“Studying the Himalaya is really exciting because the mountains are still actively forming,” Sheehan said in a published interview. “The Indian continent is still pushing into Asia at a rate of 4 centimeters a year.”

It was that activity 50 million years ago that originally created the Himalaya. During the collision between the Indian continent and Asia, part of the continent crumpled up, squeezing out the ocean and creating the mountains, said Sheehan.

Sheehan traveled to remote locations in the mountain range to take seismic images of the waves of movement that travel through the earth after an earthquake. The detailed images may provide a better understanding of earthquake activity around the world.

“I use seismometers to explain how the collision and rock folding is taking place, not at the surface but deep below the surface,” she said. “When you can see the faults and the subsurface, you can get an idea of where the weak zones are and in what way, or direction, an earthquake is likely to rupture.”

Sheehan earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas and her doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her talk is part of the Five College/University Geology Lecture Series and is sponsored by the Seismological Society of America and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.


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