McGill Prof explores earthquake mechanics in Mad Max wasteland

Recent donation of cutting-edge software will create 3D scans of underground features in Namibian mountain range

Off the Atlantic Coast, deep behind a deep orange wall of ever-changing sand dunes, lies the Naukluft Mountain range. Located in central Namibia, this arid, imposing, and vast landscape is so foreboding, it appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Indeed, it sits in the Namib-Naukluft National Park where Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was filmed.

Image by Inga Boianju, PhD student.

But more than being a vision of a harsh future, the area is also a window back into what the earth looked like over 500 million years ago. It attracts geologists worldwide, including McGill Professor Christie Rowe, a Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Geology, based in the Earth & Planetary Sciences Department. Her interest in the dynamics of plate tectonics and fault lines first brought her to this treasure trove of ancient temblors in 2008.

“The Naukluft is moonlike with much exposed rock,” explains Professor Rowe. “And the structures in the rock are like a library of how mountains are built.” Professor Rowe along with PhD student Inga Boianju and other team members have been analyzing the area to develop a better understanding of the forces and movements involved when continental plates intersect. And a recent donation by a world-leading software firm will extend their team’s reach.

Image by Inga Boianju, PhD student.

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Using Move, it is possible to paint a picture of how the earth’s crust bends and breaks under pressure, which can produce powerful earthquakes. The terrain in Naukluft lends itself to this kind of investigation.

Image by Inga Boianju, PhD student.
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Looking ahead, the data gathered using FieldMove (the digital mapping extension for field geologists) and reconstructions the team builds using Move could help provide information that might make earthquakes more predictable – although Professor Rowe says that is some time away. “We’re nowhere near the stage where we can say ‘OK we will have a M6.0 quake this Wednesday,’ she acknowledges. “But that is the long term vision.”

In the short term, her team is gearing up to host Naukluft Mountains Symposium at McGill on April 27-29. The event will bring together a broad academic community to look not only at the geology of the region, but also its wildlife, vegetation and economy, and how all of this is affected by the growing tourism to the area. The mountain range sits within a large national park – the fourth largest in the world – and as such represents an area to be studied and protected. The symposium will aim to chart a path that will enable both of these objectives. More information on the symposium can be found here: naukluftsymposium.weebly.com

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