Sesimic early warningSeismic early warning could save lives in Nepal’s next Big One

Published 1 May 2018

Just before noon on 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that maxed out the seismic intensity scale shook the entire nation of Nepal. Originating about 100 km northwest of the capital city of Kathmandu, this earthquake along with a magnitude 7.1 aftershock on 12 May killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000 more while damaging or destroying more than 600,000 structures. Scientists say that if sensors had been near the epicenter of the 2015 earthquake, they could have detected it up to 80 seconds before it reached Kathmandu. Even factoring in the time it would take to corroborate the signal with other sensors and transmit a warning to everyone’s cell phones—which are just as abundant in Nepal as they are in America—people could have gotten more than a minute warning.

Duke Engineering senior Pratiksha Sharma is leading an effort to install a nationwide earthquake early warning system in her home country

After contributing to relief efforts in Nepal following the four major earthquakes of April and May 2015, which killed more than 8,000 people, Pratiksha Sharma found she needed to do more to help prevent such a major loss of life in the long-term.

“Entire villages were leveled to the ground. It was heart-wrenching,” said Sharma, a graduating senior at Duke University and native of Nepal, who had just finished her freshman year at the time. “As we toured the sites, people pointed to fallen structures and described them not by what types of buildings they were, but by how many people had died in them.”

As a double major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science, Sharma believed she could scope a project related to her studies that could help the people of her home country. After contacting various professors at Duke, she found Henri Gavin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in earthquake engineering.

Three years later, Sharma has advanced algorithms designed to detect pressure waves that travel through the Earth’s surface, and has implemented the method in prototype devices. Over spring break this year, Sharma demonstrated her work to Dr. Lok Bijay Adhikari, the chief of Nepal’s National Seismological Center and installed one of her sensors in his office.   

“If sensors of such a network were close to the epicenter of the 2015 earthquake, they potentially could have alerted the people living in Kathmandu more than a minute before it reached them,” said Gavin. “That’s enough time to have saved a lot of lives.”