Great Shakes: UWI’s Seismic Research Centre

UWI’s Seismic Research Centre helps keep the Eastern Caribbean safe from earthquakes. Erline Andrews talks to the scientists who monitor the tremors u

Illustration by James Hackett

The most powerful earthquake to hit the islands of the Eastern Caribbean in recent times struck in November 2007. It was felt from Antigua in the north to Trinidad in the south, but no serious damage or injuries were reported.

Before that, the most powerful quake happened three decades earlier, in 1974, shaking Antigua and its neighbours, leaving some damage. It was twenty years earlier, in 1953, that a magnitude 7.75 quake rattled St Lucia, Barbados, and St Vincent, doing little damage.

To find a really devastating earthquake in the Eastern Caribbean, you have to go back more than two centuries to February 1843, when a ’quake that shook the entire region killed almost two thousand people in Guadeloupe.

That really powerful earthquakes have been few and far between, and truly devastating ones even more rare, is, of course, fortunate for the region. What’s unfortunate is that this has led to a relatively lax attitude about preparing for a big earthquake when one does hit — as it inevitably will, scientists say.

The humble headquarters of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (SRC) in St Augustine, Trinidad — the organisation responsible for monitoring, researching, and advising state officials on all earthquake and volcanic activity in the Eastern Caribbean — is evidence of this attitude. It’s a small, single-storey blue building, tucked under towering trees far away from the main road, and has been the centre’s home for more than five decades. Like too many buildings in Trinidad, it would not survive a really serious earthquake, says one researcher, who occupies an office with shifting ceiling tiles and paint bubbling off the wall. The building has long been inadequate for the staff and equipment the centre needed, and recently staff were told they were finally being moved.

The new building is on the same compound. It has three storeys, but the centre will be assigned only two, which means there still won’t be space for a conference room, library, or work area for research assistants, who will therefore continue to use the two converted shipping containers behind the centre’s current offices.

“Our biggest concern,” says centre director Dr Joan Latchman, “is the casual attitude that our Eastern Caribbean people have towards the geological hazards to which we are vulnerable.” Lutchman is a petite woman whose appearance and manner bring to mind a Victorian-novel schoolteacher. Her calm demeanour doesn’t suggest sleepless nights from the nightmare scenarios she describes when talking about what would happen if a major earthquake were to hit any part of the Eastern Caribbean in the near future. “In general, earthquakes do not kill people, it’s the buildings collapsing that do,” Latchman says, matter-of-factly.

“An extremely large death toll and significant destruction of our infrastructure,” Latchman says, when asked about the impact on Trinidad and Tobago if the country experienced today another earthquake like that of 1766, the most devastating one on record for the islands. On its website, the SRC describes the effect of that ’quake: “Total destruction of all masonry buildings in Trinidad. Complete destruction of the economy. Casualties and cost unknown.” It concludes: “The effect of a repeat of the 1766 earthquake is unimaginable.”

The islands of the Eastern Caribbean lie on a subduction zone — an area where the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust meet, causing one plate to sink beneath the other. This activity causes the region’s earthquakes and volcanoes.

The SRC’s 2011 annual report says that in that year a minimum of 879 earthquakes shook the region, an increase of ten per cent over the previous year. Latchman explains that the plate boundary on which the Eastern Caribbean rests has been building up “strain energy,” the release of which causes earthquakes. “The region is looking poised to deliver some of its biggest earthquakes,” she says.

Despite its limitations, the SRC has managed an impressive list of accomplishments in the sixty years of its existence — an anniversary it is celebrating with various events this year. The SRC has built up a network of twenty-six scientists and technicians and more than sixty monitoring stations in nine islands. It helps manage the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which helps the government of that island keep watch on the Soufrière Hills volcano, which devastated Montserrat in 1997, leaving most of it uninhabitable. And SRC researchers have compiled volcanic and seismic hazard maps of the region to aid in planning.

It has also established and continues to build a regional brain trust in seismology and volcanology. In the 1970s, Dr Keith Rowley — now best known as Trinidad and Tobago’s Opposition Leader — supervised at the SRC, became the first geology masters graduate in the region, then its first PhD in the subject. He went on to serve as director of the centre from 1989 to 1991. Latchman became the region’s first PhD in seismology in 2009, and Dr Erouscilla Joseph got the first PhD in volcanology in 2008.

Recently, the SRC — which has active accounts on Twitter and Facebook — expanded a public education campaign started in 2001. It opens its doors to the public on the final Thursday of every month, and has begun setting up one-day booths at shopping malls for further public interaction. In Trinidad and Tobago, at least, the outreach seems to be paying off. The Ministry of Planning is working with the centre to measure and map the degree to which different areas of the country will be shaken by future earthquakes. The hope is that further national action — like the development and enforcement of strict building codes — will spring from this.

“I believe the authorities are actually putting things in place,” says Latchman. “It is not that they’re completely deaf to what is going on. It’s that some things take time.”