Finding the Fault lines

Generating resilience demands many different resources and skills. A multi-disciplinary international team works with experts in Bhutan to create resilience against possible earthquakes. 

In 2015, the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal killed nearly 9,000 people. Bhutan lies on the same seismic Himalayan belt, and while the country hasn’t has had a major earthquake for some time, people are increasingly concerned that Bhutan hasn’t prepared well enough for the possibility. 

Led by Dr Frances Cooper from University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, the interdisciplinary BRACE project seeks to develop resilience-building strategies that could help the country and its people bounce back from a possible major earthquake – BRACE is an acronym for ‘Building Bhutanese Resilience Against Cataclysmic Events’. It is interdisciplinary because the idea of resilience itself contains the idea of an ecosystem where each element self-organises to respond to a shock. 

‘It’s not just the Nepal earthquake in Kathmandu 2 years ago,’ says Dr Cooper, ‘there was the Sikkim earthquake in 2011 which was massive. It really makes you realise that Bhutan is vulnerable. People wonder if it is part of what’s known as a seismic gap.’ A seismic gap is part of an active fault system that hasn’t slipped for some time. The geological element of the project is directed towards getting a better measure of the threat. 

The origins of resilience   

In 1973, Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling delivered a paper that would begin to shift how governments and aid organisations respond and think about disaster relief. In a much quoted passage, Holling identified ‘resilience’ as, ‘a measure of the persistence of systems and their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationship between populations or state variables.’ This notion of resilience is the capacity of a system – a city and its citizens for example – to absorb shocks such as earthquakes or floods and find a new equilibrium. Resilience also became a reference point for research in sustainable development.  

The international BRACE team led by Dr Cooper, a structural geologist, includes many different skills required to explore resilience, from Dowchu Drukpa, Chief Seismologist at the Department of Geology & Mines, Bhutan to environmental historian Daniel Haines from the University of Bristol, to earthquake seismologist Aaron Velasco from the University of Texas, El Paso, USA, and many others.

Dr Cooper did her PhD work in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, but her post-doctoral research at Arizona State University took her to Bhutan, ‘it was more classic geology, trying to understand the long term evolution of the Eastern Himalayas, how the mountains had formed over time, which faults were controlling their evolution, and trying to map them out on a large scale.’ 

Dr Cooper explains that in the1960s Augusto Gansser, a famous Swiss geologist, was invited by the King of Bhutan to map the country. ‘He did it on horseback and on foot – we still base our maps on his map of Bhutan today. Once you have done that, it is a process of refining it by collecting samples to try and work out for example when certain rocks formed.’

When a geologist sees contrast in rock type, that is where they may look for a fault – it is a sign of change. ‘Then you would look for some evidence of grinding of rocks next to each other – zones of weakness where all the rocks have been pulverised and mixed together and that would usually tell you that you are in in a fault zone.’

Mapping, geology and culture

The first part of the BRACE project is to use existing geological maps of Bhutan combined with new seismic data and historical earthquake information to develop a detailed seismic hazard map of the country. A seismic hazard map shows the probability that an earthquake will cause damage in a particular geographic area within a given window of time.

Throughout the project, it will be important for the team to take into account the desire of citizens to maintain their culture, which forms part of the Bhutanese philosophy of Gross National Happiness. ‘A lot of the people in the country still wear their traditional dress, they live in traditionally built houses, they want to protect their environment as much as they can – telling them that they have to construct their buildings in a different way could affect these important traditions.’ 

The project is really about proof of concept and building up networks with researchers, organisations, and businesses in Bhutan. ‘We have some great contacts and collaborators already,’ says Dr Cooper, ‘but we need to make sure that we work with as many people as possible to ascertain what the country really needs to build resilience against future earthquakes.’