University of Arizona researchers look to ‘X-Ray’ the Andes Mountains

Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 7:03 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -The University of Arizona is working to see underneath the Andes Mountains. Its research could help people in South America be more prepared for earthquakes and teach us something about the mountain ranges that surround the Western United States.

Barbara Carrapa, professor of geosciences and department head at the University of Arizona, points where some of hundreds of seismometers will go in the Andes mountains as she rolls out a map on her desk. The seismometers are part of ground-breaking research to better understand the ground underneath—up to 700 miles underneath.

“The Andes are sort of a unique natural laboratory,” said Carrapa

The Andes Mountains are still forming and shaping. Carrapa and other researchers will read the seismic waves from earthquakes in the mountain range, and through a mathematical equation, be able to read the interior of the range, and the Earth’s layers. The seismic waves act as a form of sonar to help them develop an idea of the makeup below.

“I like to compare it to getting a cat scan, a medical cat scan of your head,” said Susan Beck, professor of geosciences University of Arizona. “We come up with a 3D image that shows different properties of the rock.”

“We can use that information to reconstruct the cake basically,” said Carrapa. “It’s giving us information about the present, which is really important for hazards and earthquakes today and impact on humans but also understand the geological history.”

Having seismometers stretching thousands of miles across the Andes—something that has never been done to this scale—will also help scientists understand earthquakes and fault lines in the area, giving communities there better information about earthquake hazards.

“A place that was a similar tectonic setting of the Andes in the past was North America,” said Carrapa.

Not only will it help keep communities be safer, but this will help researchers better understand the origins of much of the topography of the Western United States. In fact, they said, in millions of years, the Andes could look much like the area around us.

The research will be conducted over the next five years, and graduate students from the University of Arizona will be involved.

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