If there’s one big thing I learned from the April 25, 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, it’s that in the face of tragedy and hardship, people make do, learn from the events that transpire, adapt, and forge forward in new and often improved ways. The Nepalese people have been building and rebuilding after major earthquakes for millennia, but it doesn’t mean this seismic event was run-of-the-mill. The Himalayas were made by the world’s most colossal tectonic convergence and mega earthquakes have played the leading role in the formation of the dramatic landscape.
Few Nepalis today have lived through a big quake, and now we know there are secondary affects of large earthquakes in such a vertical landscape: Avalanches that can take out entire villages, glacial lake outbursts that can cause great flooding, and landslides that can block high-flowing rivers.
Because major quakes only happen every 80-100 years in Nepal, people forget about the severity of the great quakes after a generation and then homes are no longer built to outlast the rocking, jolts, and permanent elevation changes an earthquake can bring about. What we’ve found especially humbling is the resourcefulness of the millions who live outside the nation’s capitol. Traditional homes are constructed from the resources at hand: Rock, mud, and less often, wood. And in some villages, there are stacked stone homes that withstood a shaking that brought every building around them down. Why did those buildings, and the people inside, survive while others didn’t?
When I was asked to make a film for NOVA about what the scientific community has learned from the earthquake, the assignment was humbling and also a concern. There’s been a lot of great science going on behind-the-scenes, post-earthquake. Which projects should we focus on? And, how can we address, without sensationalizing, the devastating loss of more than 8,800 people?
We sure feel helpless when an earthquake half way around the world rocks our loved ones, but for everyone I know who lives outside Nepal, who has had any intersection with this beautiful country, those first few weeks after the earthquake were grueling. The news coming out of Nepal was hard to fathom, and in the months afterward, indeed even now (up until January 4, 2016), over 423 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or greater have been felt by the people residing there.
I can’t go into detail about the film, as it’s about to air, on January 27th, 2016 at 9 pm on NOVA/PBS (check your local listings! Some markets may have different and additional broadcast times.) But what I can say is that there’s a clue to the survivability of some structures in the quake and the absolute destruction of others. It can be found in the old part of the Hanumandhoka Palace, a structure built hundreds of years ago. The multi-story original palace structure, in general, withstood the strong shaking of the quake, while the newer wing of the palace, built more recently, is on the verge of collapse.
We can learn from our predecessors, who lived through past quakes. Old technology is often better than new. Look for examples of what works from our past, to pioneer the simple engineering solutions of the future. This is what people have learned over generations and what we strive to teach in this blog.
There’s a story of deep commitment and ingenuity in the film about to air, from the scientists, engineers, and architects who have worked decades to warn of the inevitability of earthquakes here, to the specialists in Nepal who have been hands-on, writing about the Nepali innovations of yore and today, to the people themselves who survive, adapt, innovate and thrive no matter what comes their way.
These are the lessons our children take home with them, better for having spent precious time in the lap of ingenuity and compassion.
If you have the time and interest, our film on NOVA airs at 9:00 pm on PBS on January 27, 2016. Hope you have a chance to watch.