Panama canal is due a big earthquake

The Panama canal is at greater risk of a catastrophic earthquake than previously assumed, a seismological survey of faults around the canal has warned.

It reveals that two known faults adjacent to the canal are far more active than previously thought, raising the possibility of a major quake just as the canal is being widened and upgraded in a project due for completion in 2014.

The authors of the survey estimate that quakes occur every 300 to 900 years. The most recent one was in 1621, so another could happen at any time.

Along both faults, surfaces normally rub harmlessly past one another at a rate of around half a centimetre a year. But stresses can build up, causing the faults to jump suddenly, say the authors of the survey. The question is by how much.

In the worst case, the ground could shift laterally by up to 3 metres, says Tom Rockwell of San Diego State University, California, head of the survey team. “That means that any structures built directly on the fault are likely to be damaged or destroyed, as an earthquake of this size will produce very strong ground shaking.”

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