Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


On shaky ground: UH Prof finds geological faults threaten Houston

Geologist Shuhab Khan addresses vulnerability of city’s roads, buildings in light of recent earthquakes

After finding more than 300 surface faults in Harris County, a University of Houston geologist now has information that could be vitally useful to the region’s builders and city planners.

This information – the most accurate and comprehensive of its kind – was discovered by Shuhab Khan, assistant professor of geology, and Richard Engelkemeir, a geology Ph.D. student, using advanced radar-like laser technology. Although geologists have long known of the existence of faults in Southeast Texas, only recently have UH researchers produced a comprehensive map pinpointing the locations of the faults. A Houston-area map showing active surface faults is available at

While the ground moving beneath Houstonians feet is not felt at the magnitude of recent earthquakes in San Antonio and Illinois, this shaky ground could mean trouble for buildings, roads and pipelines located on one of these hundreds of faults traversing the region’s surface.

“These shifting fault lines originated millions of years ago during the formation of the Gulf of Mexico,” Khan said. “While they are not the kinds that wreak havoc in earthquake-prone California and now the Midwest, they can move up to 1 inch a year, causing serious damage over the course of several years to buildings and streets that straddle a fault line. Additionally, structures on the subsiding side of the fault line could be more susceptible to flooding due to the lower elevation over time.”

Khan and Engelkemeir recently presented their findings in Geosphere, a bimonthly online-only journal published by the Geological Society of America that highlights research results from all fields of the geosciences. They began by looking at data compiled during a 2001 study funded by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Harris County Flood Control District. That year, Tropical Storm Allison dumped nearly 40 inches of rain on the Houston area during the course of five days, causing nearly two dozen deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

To update floodplain maps, FEMA and the flood district employed lidar technology – the optical analog of radar meaning ‘light detection and ranging’ – to survey the topography and elevation of the county. From an aircraft flying overhead, laser beams were directed toward the ground. The time between the laser beam pulse and the return reflection from any given point on the ground was used to determine the distance between the instrument and that point on the surface. Buildings and vegetation were then removed from the model to produce a map that recorded even the most subtle surface elevation differences.

Khan and Engelkemeir pored over the data, refining the grids to identify the more than 300 faults. Many were associated with the salt domes in the southeast part of the county. Others were located in the northwest portion of the county near highways Texas 6 and I-10, where there is ongoing subsidence, or sinking, of the ground.

During the summer of 2005, Engelkemeir personally visited about 50 of the faults he located with the lidar data, looking for signs of deformation and displacement where the land on one side of the fault was rising over the other. At many of the faults, he saw cracks in street pavements, with residents living nearby reporting foundation problems. At one home there was about a yard of displacement between the garage and the house. At another site, a building had been so damaged by ground shifts it was condemned.

Geologists are still studying what causes fault movements and the resulting subsidence in the region, with some attributing it to land-use practices such as groundwater and petroleum withdrawal, Engelkemeir said.

Khan is now turning his attention to Fort Bend County. Using lidar data, Cecilia Ramirez, a master’s student working under Khan, has found one potential fault near the Brazos River levee.

“By knowing the location of surface faults, builders and government planners will be able to avoid those areas or accommodate potential ground shifts in their construction plans,” Khan said. “And we must still keep in mind that while lidar has allowed us to identify previously unmapped faults, there still might be faults in the region that have yet to be located.”

Khan has given numerous talks on this work at both scientific meetings for a number of geological and petroleum organizations, as well as at more general meetings attended by the city of Houston and other local and state agencies.

Lisa Merkl | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>