Seismology School in Nepal // by Paul Denton, György Hetényi (University of Laussanne)

Paul Denton is the manager of the UK School Seismology project at BGS. As well as starting the UK School Seismology project he has helped inspire and launch similar projects in Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Trinidad and now Nepal. Since 2010 he has managed work packages within EU projects networking school seismology projects across Europe (first in NERA under FP7 and currently in the SERA project under Horizon2020). In 2016 he was recognised for his outreach work by the Geological Society and awarded the R.H. Worth prize.

Great big problems and great small solutions
Nepal’s first recorded earthquake was in Kathmandu in 1255. It killed approximately 6000 people and had an estimated magnitude of 7.8.  Since then at least 16 earthquakes with magnitudes ranging between 6.5 and 8.7 have struck Nepal, each killing hundreds or thousands of people. In countries that are more seismically active, like Japan and Chile, earthquake awareness becomes part of local culture, affecting building practices, education and traditional narratives. In Nepal, the generational gap which often occurs between these devastating events is long enough to forget whatever might have been learned from previous earthquakes. Moreover, as earthquakes are not part of the school curriculum, the local population has various ways to explain why earthquakes occur, including mythological and religious arguments.  

The usual response to big problems is big solutions: multinational inter-governmental top-down projects, which are prone to bureaucracy and can struggle to reach people in areas remote from the centres of power. The Seismology at School in Nepal project takes a different approach by introducing a program of earthquake hazard awareness direct to dozens of schools, and thus thousands of pupils, and tens of thousands of their relatives in the local communities.

All journeys start with a single step
In 2015, at the time of the devastating Gorkha earthquake (Magnitude 7.8,  estimated 9000 fatalities), Shiba Subedi was studying for a physics Master’s degree at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. He and his family were among those affected by this earthquake and he resolved to devote himself to making Nepal safer before the next big event struck. His college professor, a specialist in condensed matter physics, suggested that studying seismology would enable Shiba to contribute to a greater understanding of earthquakes and put him in a better position to help. This led to a second Master's degree, at the renowned Institute du Physics de Globe (IPGP) in Paris and then a PhD program in Switzerland at the University of Lausanne. Shiba’s supervisor at Lausanne, geophysicist György Hetényi, with a research background in the Himalayas suggested a thesis topic on educational seismology: the Seismology at School in Nepal project was born, for which Shiba won a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship for three years.

It takes a child to educate a family
After an initial field trip to Nepal, Shiba identified 22 schools in his home province in western Nepal whose principals were interested in taking part in an educational seismology project. The global geoscience community started providing some more practical assistance, a co-supervisor, Anne Sauron, was appointed from ETH Zurich  with experience of school seismology projects, and she introduced Shiba to educational seismology experts in the UK, Europe and the USA. Small grants were applied for and won: £5000 from the Royal Astronomical Society to buy low cost 'raspberryshake' seismic sensors from Panama, additional 12’000 CHF from the University of Lausanne’s Faculty of Geosciences and Environment for sensors and installation, $6000 from the American Geophysical Union to pay expenses for Nepali school teachers to attend a 2-day training workshop in Pokhara, and additional cash funding to cover consumables, power supplies and Shiba’s travel expenses from the University of Lausanne. The British Geological Survey funded UK school seismology expert Paul Denton to attend this workshop and help out with initial training sessions and station installations, and retired geology teacher and Chair of the Geological Society education committee, Peter Loader, was persuaded to divert his family holiday in Singapore to help out (with some financial support from the British Geophysical Association).

The inaugural workshop
On 16th-17th April 2019, (in the first week the Nepali calendar’s year 2076) the inaugural International Workshop on Educational Seismology was held in Pokhara, Nepal with eighty two delegates from the local area, teachers, principals, local administrators and the press, as well as various officials from the authorities.   The event was a great success with a mixture of lectures, practical demonstrations and open question sessions. The open question session was a favourite for all concerned, with wide ranging questions from “do tectonic plates ever change direction?”  to  “is heat flow from the Earth higher at the poles due to its flattened shape?” and “what discipline studies the link between earthquakes and Hinduism?”

An unusual highlight was an impromptu appearance just before the workshop dinner by one of Nepal’s top traditional singers, Puroshottam Neupane, whose YouTube videos regularly get over a million views. It transpired that in addition to being a talented physicist and seismologist, Shiba Subedi is also a prominent songwriter.

The workshop speakers stayed on for a couple of days to help install the first low cost seismic station in Shree Shanta school just outside Pokhara and talk to the students there about seismology and earthquake safety. Another open question session allowed the school students to develop their understanding of the issues involved, and we concluded the day with an earthquake evacuation drill. All the material for the Seismology at School in Nepal program is available online including stickers, preparedness flyers and emergency assembly point signs in Nepali.

Next steps
Shiba Subedi spent the subsequent months visiting a further 20 schools in Nepal, installing sensors and talking to the students and teachers about seismology, tectonics and earthquake safety.   He is already starting to raise awareness of earthquake safety in the wider community through press coverage of his project in provincial newspapers and the BBC Nepali language radio service.

You can follow the project progress and monitor the seismic activity recorded by the schools’ stations on Twitter and on the raspberryshake website.  Meanwhile, we are looking into the possibility of helping to develop school partnerships between schools in the UK who also operate their own seismic monitoring stations and some of the Nepalese schools involved. If this works, it could provide set of additional connections in this global village to help make Nepal a safer country for future generations.

This blog was supported by the Global Geological Risk Platform of the British Geological Survey NC-ODA grant NE/R000069/1: Geoscience for Sustainable Futures.”