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Constructive Collaboration: Sea-going scientists get to the bottom of the Haitian earthquake.

Geological map of Haiti

Paths to Ruin Red line shows the ship’s track.The quake’s fault line, with starred epicenter, is in yellow.

More than four months after the earthquake that killed as many as 230,000 of its residents, the city of Port au Prince, Haiti, remains a ruin. Relief agencies estimate that more than 600,000 survivors have fled the city. Hundreds of thousands more remain, waiting desperately for rebuilding to begin.

There is no silver lining in a disaster of these proportions. But as the world mobilizes its resources to help Port au Prince rebuild, urban planners and earth scientists say the near-total destruction of the city provides a unique opportunity to rebuild a Haitian capital that is less vulnerable to earthquakes.

Learning more about the seismic forces beneath Haiti will be key to making this happen, says Milene Cormier, an assistant professor of geophysics and geodynamics at MU.

“Scientists from many different universities around the world and from U.S. agencies have been collaborating constructively since the January 12 earthquake and are racing to understand what happened,” she says.

Cormier, along with MU graduate student Hal Johnson, was recently part of a Rapid Response Research team dispatched by the National Science Foundation to map underwater extensions of the geological fault system that caused the disaster.

The MU researchers joined scientists from Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the Haitian Bureau des Mines et de l’Energie aboard the research vessel Endeavor, a 120-foot ship operated by the University of Rhode Island. During their 20-day mission they used the Endeavor’s array of high-tech tools to explore the sea floor surrounding the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault, a seismically unstable feature running along the southern flank of Hispaniola. The sea-floor data will help the scientists get a better read on seismic features that, as the quake struck, produced a tsunami that killed seven and pushed ocean corrals up above sea level.

The ultimate goal, Cormier says, is to determine where the fault hasn’t yet ruptured at the sea floor. And that, she says, “could be used to forecast what might happen there next.”

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