Soon after the earthquake struck Nepal this spring, Rebecca Bendick got an alert from nearly every device she owned.

Bendick, an earthquake scientist and professor at the University of Montana, is part of a rapid response team that deploys instruments to study temblors from the Tendoy Mountains at home to the Himalayas abroad.

When a massive earthquake hits, Bendick is on the horn.

A couple of weeks after she received word of the 7.8-magnitude quake in South Asia, Bendick had secured a grant of nearly $60,000 from the National Science Foundation.

She hopped a flight to Kathmandu on the heels of a colleague from the University of Colorado and a UM graduate student.

On Monday, Bendick said the sophisticated instruments her team set up in the Himalayas are already yielding valuable information. To her, the lines and dots coming from the units are the seeds that will make the world a better, safer place in the future.

"I really believe that science is for people," said Bendick, in the Department of Geosciences.


In a laboratory in the basement of the Clapp Building on campus, Bendick showed the GPS equipment that she and her team delivered to Nepal. One large suitcase contains a small computer, a strong antenna, and a solar panel.

UM has six such units collecting data from the Bitterroot Fault, and another eight elsewhere in Montana. It has some 20 deployed overseas, including the seven it set up in the Himalayas.

Those will remain for a few years, possibly five to 10, or however long they continue to relay useful information about the aftermath of the quake.

"After a huge earthquake, the whole region around the event actually shifts and adjusts and accommodates the new state of things over weeks and months and years," said Bendick, who did her doctoral work in the Himalayas.

The National Science Foundation awarded $480,000 for geoscience research tied to the earthquake, and another $280,000 for engineering studies linked to the quake.

"What led to the quake, and when and where is Nepal's next one likely to occur?" read a news release from the foundation. "How can people recover more quickly from future earthquakes?"


Luciana Astiz, program director in geophysics with the National Science Foundation, said the area of study is unique, as was the proposal from Bendick and Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado.

The researchers are studying a subduction zone, where two tectonic plates collide. Most of those zones are underwater, where an oceanic plate goes under a continent, and those areas are difficult to monitor.

The Himalayas are a rarity, she said. There, one continent goes under another, and the region is accessible.

"It's one of the few places in the world we can actually monitor closer to where the action is," Astiz said.

The National Science Foundation is a federal agency promoting the advancement of science and scientific literacy, and it offers some "rapid response" grants that put researchers on the ground soon after an event.

Astiz said Bendick and Bilham's proposal stood out because of his long-standing work in the region and her expertise with GPS, and the information they collect will translate to other subduction zones.

In particular, scientists can use the information from the Himalayas to understand a lesser-known area closer to home.

"These kinds of information could be transferred to the Pacific Northwest, to Washington and Oregon," Astiz said.


Many groups are collaborating on the data collection in the Himalayas, Bendick said. For instance, Tribhuvan University will maintain the instruments UM installed.

Already, she said, the information being gleaned is exciting.

Units in place during the quake showed the energy it produced didn't travel in an expected way. The earthquake's power dropped the high peaks of the Himalayas, but the "slip," or motion on the fault, stopped before doing the same to the lower peaks.

The stop meant the area retained energy from the quake, and scientists worried a subsequent temblor would cause even more damage.

The April 25, quake killed 8,800 people, injured 23,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless, according to the National Science Foundation.

Bendick, though, said the GPS units that UM placed show the lower peaks in the south are moving ever so slightly, and in their slow creep, they are losing some of the energy stored from the quake. The movement, some 5 centimeters a month, decreases the power of any earthquake there in the future.

At its current rate of motion, it will be years before the energy totally dissipates, but even a little bit of motion is positive. 

"It's really good news that it's moving," Bendick said. "Even if it were to stop next week, we've still gotten rid of some of the energy."


A new earthquake causes a wave of different emotions in Bendick.

On the one hand, she's thrilled to have a new event to study and learn from. On the other, she's distressed to know people are suffering, especially because she tends to work in developing nations that are not prepared for disasters.

In 2008, for instance, many of the buildings that fell in China were schools, she said. She thinks about the time of day an earthquake hit, and what the people in the area might have been doing at the time.

Still, she does the work because science offers the opportunity to make the world better for different societies. In her area of study, the lessons from the Himalayas translate to the Cascadia region in North America, for instance, because earthquakes globally have much in common with each other.

Sometimes, Bendick said, it's hard to get people fired up to research earthquakes in Montana because the events are more rare here. Information being collected in the Big Sky, though, shows the hazards are greater than people may have thought.

"I think it's so important for people to know how the Earth works," Bendick said.

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