Earth Sciences in Jamaica

During J Term 2013, nine students are traveling to Jamaica as part of a multidisciplinary Earth Sciences course to conduct geophysical research on earthquake risks on the Caribbean island. Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston rests precariously along the western edge of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault, which activated in the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in nearby Haiti. During their trip, the students will collect and analyze geophysical data on land and at sea, and will present their findings to Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. Taught by SMU Earth Sciences Associate Professor Matt Hornbach and Lyndon Brown of the University of the West Indies, the course is funded in part by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ Geoscientists Without Borders program and The Institute for the Study of Earth and Man in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

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Our final day in Jamaica

The SMU group and Mr. Stewart (left), our fearless driver. The white rocks in the background show the headwall of Judgement Cliff, a massive landslide that occurred during the 1692 earthquake. The white cliff face is nearly a half-mile wide. When the slide occurred, it buried a plantation and all of its occupants.

An update from Emma, a geology and mathematics major:

Emma taking a break along the eastern shore of Port Royal, with Gun Cay and Lime Cay in the background.

I woke up on our last day in Jamaica at 7 am to finish my final paper. I was in the sediment group, and we analyzed the sand on the beach to determine its angle of repose, porosity and density, with the ultimate goal of determining the probability of slope failure in and around Kingston Harbour.

One of my jobs was to conduct a statistical analysis on all of the data we collected. I calculated the mean, standard deviation and coefficient of variation for the angle of repose for sediments of varying water content.

At 8 am everyone ate breakfast, then packed up to return to Kingston for our final night. On the drive back, we stopped in Yallahs for some traditional Jamaican Jerk and continued on to Judgement Cliff. The cliff was created in 1692 by a landslide caused by the same earthquake that destroyed Port Royal. It is an enormous landslide.

When we arrived in Kingston we dropped off our seismic and surveying equipment at the University of the West Indies campus, toured the Earthquake Unit where Lyndon works and then went to Usain Bolt’s restaurant, “Tracks & Records,” for dinner.

Connor attempting different grain-size and angle of repose measurement techniques.

After dinner we all listened to Brett and Gwen’s presentation. They were part of the surveying team and had integrated our angle of repose results with their surveying analysis to assess slope stability at Port Royal. In their presentation they came to the preliminary conclusion that only a magnitude ~5 earthquake near Kingston is necessary to cause slope failure in Port Royal. Further analysis is necessary, but their conclusion – based both on experimental and theoretical data – closely matches historical observations.

I have had an amazing time in Jamaica and learned so much. I am on the 730 flight back to Dallas, so I will be in bed early!


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