At Ars Technica, Scott K. Johnson what has been learned about the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal earlier this year:
The mighty Himalayas have been driven up into the sky by the collision of Eurasia and India, which has migrated north like a tectonic rocket over the last 100 million years. The Indian plate is being crammed beneath the crumpled Himalayan rocks along a dangerous fault that ramps downward to the north.
Lots of GPS sensors and seismometers have been deployed in the area to help seismologists study earthquakes here. Combined with precise satellite measurements of surface elevation changes, researchers have the means to work out where the movement on the fault must have occurred.
The earthquake began about 80 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu and about 15 kilometers beneath the surface. Geologists like to talk about faults “unzipping,” which is a helpful way to visualize what’s going on. A small patch of the fault plane slips, and then expands outward along the fault. In this case, the patch unzipped about 140 kilometers to the east in under a minute, traveling horizontally along the fault plane. Within that patch, the rocks slipped as much as six meters past each other.
Although it’s the seismic energy released by that sudden motion that causes the damage, the surface changes are still eye-catching — some of the GPS stations ended up two meters south of where they had been before the earthquake.
As for that seismic shaking, the pattern of building damage in Kathmandu was partly the result of the geology beneath the city. It sits on a roughly 500-meter-thick stack of lake and river sediment filling a bedrock bowl. The reverberation of seismic waves in that bowl produced a resonance, building stronger waves with a period of 4 to 5 seconds. While fewer homes were actually damaged than expected, taller buildings — which can sway at about that same frequency — didn’t fare as well. (A similar thing happened in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, when buildings between 6 and 15 stories bore the brunt.)
Strategy Page on the (long overdue) inclusion of Gurkha troops in the British army’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) units:
It was recently revealed that the British SAS commandos have, since about 2010 recruited a dozen Gurkhas. The SAS, who were the original modern commandos and were first formed during World War II, are a very selective and elite organization. There are only about 200-300 SAS operators active and several years ago it was decided to recruit some Gurkhas. What was unusual about this was that the Gurkhas are not British and it is very rare for commando organizations to recruit foreigners. The Gurkhas are different in that they have served Britain loyally for a long time. While the Gurkhas are native to Nepal (a small country north of India) for two centuries Britain has recruited Gurkhas from the Gurkha tribes. This was mainly because Gurkhas have an outstanding reputation for military skills including discipline, bravery and all round kick-ass soldiering. Having served in the British Army, most can speak good English and all are familiar with British weapons, tactics and military customs.
There are currently 3,500 Gurkhas serving in the British army, and recruiting more is not a problem. Because of high unemployment in Nepal, a job in the British army is like winning the lottery. British military pay is more than 30 times what a good job in Nepal will get you. There are over sixty applicants for each of the few hundred openings each year. The men who don’t make it into the British army, can try getting into the Indian Army Gurkha units. There are about ten times as many Gurkhas in the Indian army, but the pay is only a few times what one could make in Nepal, and the fringe benefits are not nearly as good. Then again, you’re closer to home.
When the SAS quietly sought Gurkha recruits they found fifty willing to try out. A dozen of these passed the screening and survived the training. That’s a slightly higher pass rate than the usual SAS volunteers (British citizens serving in the army or Royal Marines). This was not surprising because Gurkhas have an outstanding military record. Such mercenary duty is now a tradition in the Gurkha tribes, where warriors, and things like loyalty and courage, have been held in high esteem for centuries. Nepal was never conquered by the British, although they did fight a war with the colonial British army in the early 19th century.
In The Walrus, Manjushree Thapa explains why Nepal was so badly prepared for the earthquake:
Following the April 25 earthquake, Nepalis have had to learn the value of preparedness in the most painful way possible. In the aftermath, Pushpa Acharya, a Nepali friend at the University of Toronto, observed, “Knowledge was not our problem.” Indeed. We all knew that our country sits on an active fault line, where the subcontinent collided with the Eurasian plate with such force it created the Himalayas. The last big quake took place in 1934. Others have since struck, but none with the force of 1934’s 8.0 or April 25’s 7.9. We knew that a big earthquake was due.
It was our duty to prepare, and though some of us did so individually, as a society we ignored the warnings. In the past ten days, during search and rescue, and then the beginnings of relief, we’ve had to do some hard thinking about how our country could become more responsible going forward. The root problem may seem obvious: Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its poverty is, however, a symptom of our history of ill governance, and the reason for our national failure to prepare, which has kept us from becoming a functioning democracy.
When the earthquake struck, the country was in a deep and deeply depressing stupor. The governing parties — a coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Unified Marxist Leninists — had reached an impasse with Nepal’s thirty-three opposition parties about what kind of constitution to draft. There was no plan for the country as a whole, let alone in the case of an emergency. The drafting of a constitution has preoccupied, confounded, and eluded Nepal’s polity since 2006, when the Maoists ended a ten-year insurgency to join forces with other parties to remove Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah. Nepal’s king had used the war as an excuse to end a fragile fifteen-year spell of democracy and install his own military-backed rule. A mass movement restored democracy, and the subsequent peace process promised to restructure the country along just and equitable lines through the drafting of a new constitution
Indian troops suffer a particularly bad experiment in local sourcing of equipment:
INSAS rifle (via Wikipedia)
In 1999, the Indian Army fought a three-month-long undeclared war with Pakistan. It was also the combat debut of India’s new INSAS battle rifle.
The INSAS is a very bad rifle.
During the conflict — waged over the disputed and mountainous Kargil district in the province of Kashmir — the Indian troops’ rifles jammed up, and their cheap, 20-round plastic magazines cracked in the cold weather.
Designed to shoot in semi-automatic and three-round burst modes, some soldiers would pull the trigger, and the gun would unexpectedly spray rounds like a fully automatic.
Soldiers also preferred the heavier 7.62-millimeter rounds in the FAL rifle, which the INSAS and its 5.56-millimeter rounds replaced.
Then in 2005, Maoist rebels attacked a Nepalese army base. The Nepalese troops had INSAS rifles bought from India. During the 10-hour-long battle, the rifles overheated and stopped working. The Maoists overran the base and killed 43 soldiers.
“Maybe the weapons we were using were not designed for a long fight,” Nepalese army Brig. Gen. Deepak Gurung said after the battle. “They malfunctioned.”
International affairs can be complicated, but sometimes a case comes along that’s so simple it’s almost absurd. In 2010, the United Nations made a horrendous mistake that, so far, has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Its officials tried to cover it up. When the evidence came out anyway, lawyers for victims’ families petitioned the U.N. to end the crisis, pay damages, and apologize. For a year and a half, the world’s leading humanitarian organization said nothing. Then, last week, it threw out the case, saying, “The claims are not receivable.”
The background should be well-known by now. But despite the fact that American taxpayers have footed the lion’s share of the bill for the U.N. peacekeepers responsible for this disaster — to the tune of roughly $1.5 billion since 2004 — the story remains largely unknown in the United States.
The place was Haiti. The mistake: a killer combination of cholera and gross negligence. The peacekeeping mission, known by its French initials, MINUSTAH, had been in country since 2004, when it was authorized to protect an interim government installed after a coup. Six years later — thanks to a healthy dose of mission creep — the peacekeepers were still there. While rotating troops into what was now post-quake Haiti, the U.N. neglected to adequately screen a contingent of soldiers coming from an active cholera outbreak in Nepal. Upon arrival, the soldiers were sent to a rural U.N. base, outside the quake zone and long known for leaking sewage into a major river system that millions of Haitians used to drink, bathe, wash, and farm. Within days of their arrival, people downstream began to die. The epidemic then exploded, sickening more than 647,000 people, and killing in its first year more than twice the number of people who died on 9/11.