And Finally

Debatable measures

Surely the size of an earthquake is indisputable? Not in China

Debatable measures

In ruins

Sometimes, there’s a mystery to official figures. China’s GDP growth numbers – which always seem to beat the magic 8% level – have long led international economists to question their accuracy.

Is there a similar mystery behind the magnitude of the Yushu earthquake earlier this month? China’s netizens think so. Some suspect the magnitude may have been exaggerated – to explain why so many buildings collapsed on their foundations.

“The government requires that buildings in this area be able to withstand earthquakes below an intensity of 7.0 [on the Richter scale], but [in Yushu] all the houses collapsed,” explained one netizen. He theorised that the government would look bad if a 6.9 quake saw buildings collapse. But less so if it was declared a 7.1.

Both the European and US earthquake sensors measured the Yushu quake at 6.9. And while government statistics often need to be taken with a pinch of salt in many countries, the China Earthquake Administration seems to be held in particular disdain by the nation’s netizens.

“They had no idea that the earthquake would hit,” complained another internet commentator.

In WiC53 we reported on an earthquake rumour that sparked panic in Shanxi. The local seismological bureau tried to calm citizens – but having failed to predict a 4.8 magnitude quake earlier in January, people had lost confidence in its forecasting abilities. In chaotic scenes, they fled their homes en masse.

The massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake first sparked an outcry over shoddy construction (especially in schools). Since then, lingering concerns about lax oversight of building codes have been hard for senior officials to deal with. These debates have been resurrected by the recent quake.

Other netizens have added an international dimension, drawing comparisons between Qinghai’s recent experience and Haiti’s 7.0 quake in January. They point out similarities in the role of economic backwardness and poor quality construction in magnifying the effects of both natural disasters.

Newsweek meanwhile interviewed Dong Weimin, a quake expert with Risk Management Solutions. He explains that the debate about the ‘magnitude’ is less important than understanding the concept of ‘intensity’ – which varies around the quake zone. At its epicentre he says Yushu was a 10, which explains why 80% of the buildings collapsed – given that even the more modern ones were only designed to withstand an intensity of 7.

Evidently measuring earthquakes is a whole lot more complicated than WiC thought.

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