Geology & Geophysics News

Scientist's Field Season Ends with Nepal Quake

A graduate student studying tectonics found himself caught in a disaster at the end of fieldwork in the Himalayas.

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On a Saturday morning at the end of a monthlong field season in Nepal, Renaud Soucy La Roche was feeling lazy.

Renaud Soucy La Roche. Credit: Nanci Bompey
Renaud Soucy La Roche. Credit: Nanci Bompey

Instead of dragging 25 kilograms of rock samples up seven floors to the roof of his hotel in Kathmandu, the tectonics graduate student at Queen’s University in Canada took them out to the adjacent alley. Soucy La Roche and his field assistant, Nigel Bocking, started packing the millions-of-years-old rock samples for the trip home.

Then the shaking started.

“It was shaking a lot and I thought, That’s an earthquake,” Soucy La Roche said while recounting his experience of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that shook Nepal on 25 April.

He and Bocking ran back to the hotel and stood in the door frame until the shaking stopped. The buildings around them stayed mainly intact, although small chunks of building material had fallen into the street and water tanks on the roofs of nearby structures were overflowing.

“We talked about [the earthquake] for a few minutes and [the shaking] started again,” Soucy La Roche said.

The pair stayed at the hotel as aftershocks continued for the next few hours before making their way to an open field. People screamed as massive aftershocks continued to shake the ground.

The Days After

Soucy La Roche knew there had been a major earthquake but had no idea how big it was or the extent of the damage until other tourists began receiving text messages from friends and family back home. Back at the hotel that night, Soucy La Roche sent an email to his family and heard accounts from other tourists about the situation in other parts of Kathmandu.

Sorting and packing rock samples in the camp at the American Club where Bocking and Soucy La Roche took refuge after the earthquake. Credit: Renaud Soucy La Roche
Sorting and packing rock samples in the camp at the American Club where Bocking and Soucy La Roche took refuge after the earthquake. Credit: Renaud Soucy La Roche

“We’re in Nepal. I thought, things are still moving—India is still going into Asia and earthquakes are very normal there; they must happen all the time. But I asked our hotel owner, How often do you have earthquakes like this? And he said never—not that big,” Soucy La Roche said.

The next morning—after being woken by a significant aftershock—Soucy La Roche and Bocking went to the Canadian consulate and then to the British embassy before finding refuge on an open soccer field at the American Club where tents and supplies had been set up by the U.S. government.

“Looking above, there is absolutely nothing that can fall on my head here, so that was the most important thing at that time,” Soucy La Roche said. “At that point, people were pretty calm. The initial panic had dissipated, and people started to think about their plans in the next few days: where to go, how to come back to Canada.”

Concern in Canada

Back in Kingston, Laurent Godin, a professor at Queen’s University and the head of Soucy La Roche’s research group, woke up at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday to find a U.S. Geological Survey alert about the earthquake on his phone.

“I saw the magnitude, and I went, oh, wow, this is serious, and I knew Renaud and Nigel were en route to Kathmandu…but I wasn’t quite sure where they were at the time,” Godin said.

After trying to contact his students and initiating the university’s emergency plan, Godin received an email from Bocking that they were okay. He also started hearing from colleagues in Nepal and scientists who work in the area as they tried to account for other researchers and the local Nepalese they work with.

“We do the science, but through the science we work with people and we become very good friends,” Godin said. “You are 24 hours with them, around the campfire or having dinner or traveling together, so you build bonds. And so of course we think of the science, but you simply cannot do the science in the Himalayas without these local people that end up helping you and devoting their lives to your own research.”

The earthquake caused more than 7200 fatalities and more than 14,000 injuries, displaced 2.8 million people, and damaged infrastructure in Kathmandu and other parts of the country. The local Nepalese with whom Godin and Soucy La Roche work weathered the earthquake unharmed, but many of their homes and villages were destroyed.

“Earthquakes Are Part of the Story”

Godin, working with a travel agent, managed to get Soucy La Roche and Bocking on a plane out of Kathmandu on Wednesday following the earthquake. The pair showed up at the airport hours before their plane was set to leave, nervous after hearing stories that it took hours even to get inside the airport. Soucy La Roche practiced his presentation for the upcoming Joint Assembly meeting while they waited.

Field assistant Nigel Bocking takes a measurement in western Nepal. Bocking and Renaud Soucy La Roche from Queen’s University in Canada spent a month in Nepal doing field work before the earthquake struck. Credit: Renaud Soucy La Roche
Field assistant Nigel Bocking takes a measurement in western Nepal. Bocking and Renaud Soucy La Roche from Queen’s University in Canada spent a month in Nepal doing field work before the earthquake struck. Credit: Renaud Soucy La Roche

At the meeting in the Montreal convention center less than a week after returning home, Soucy La Roche said that he will go back to Nepal if he has the chance.

“I wasn’t so sure about it the first day [after the earthquake], but it was a risk before and it still is,” he said. “It is nothing that you can control, and you shouldn’t really limit yourself because of that.”

Soucy La Roche, Godin, and their colleagues are trying to understand how the Himalayas formed by studying rocks that have been pushed up to the surface over millions of years by the movement of the Earth. The rock samples that Soucy La Roche was packing when the earthquake hit are awaiting analysis back in the lab.

“If you make a choice to study an active mountain belt and how it evolved with time, even though you are studying an older part of it, the earthquakes are part of the story,” Godin said.

—Nanci Bompey, Writer

Citation: Bompey, N. (2015), Scientist’s field season ends with Nepal quake, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029593. Published on 12 May 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0