Fictional quake threat only too real, says author

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


A sound like a million freight trains blasting out of the bowels of the earth, a massive seismic wave smashing into the city's foundations, skyscrapers toppling, death and mayhem on an unimaginable scale.

An earthquake could wreak that kind of damage in the city if we are to believe Epicentre: Hong Kong, a novel by Ian McFeat-Smith, a Hong Kong-based Scottish engineering geologist.

And, McFeat-Smith says, a major quake may well be more likely here than we are led to believe.

The geologist, who works for IMS Tunnel Consultancy, a firm providing services for tunnelling projects, made his case in a novel, he says, because 'it was easier for people to understand the topic, and they could relate to it better'.

He wrote it because he fundamentally disagrees with the government's stance on the possibility of a quake hammering the city.

According to information published by the Civil Engineering and Development Department's geo-technical engineering office, Hong Kong's seismic risk level is low to moderate. 'There is little evidence of significant recent fault activity in Hong Kong, either onshore or offshore,' it reads.

To McFeat-Smith, that is arrogance. He says that without detailed subsurface exploration of the area, the government has no real idea of the possibilities.

He says the risk should be medium to high. His main argument: millions of tonnes of eroded soils deposited in the Pearl River estuary, causing 'crustal subsidence' - downward movement.

Human activity in the delta, upon which major cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Macau sit, has caused changes in the deposition of natural soil. This could trigger an earthquake.

'We are operating at a large scale, in an area of deep geological uncertainty, a place that has moved in the past,' McFeat-Smith warns.

Published by Inkstone Books, Epicentre: Hong Kong's central character, Dr Ewan MacLeod, a Scot, arrives in Hong Kong to work on a tunnel project. He discovers that the city sits on a seismically active fault which threatens destruction at any minute.

He alerts the authorities and news media, but receives scant attention.

'Hong Kong does have an unstable underlying geology,' McFeat-Smith says. 'The south of Lantau Island, Tuen Mun Valley and the Tolo Channel are fault zones.'

The Hong Kong Observatory, which monitors and records earth movement as well as weather, says the city experiences about two tremors a year. None has caused any casualties since recording began in 1905. It says 'the chance of a major local tremor is very small' because Hong Kong does not sit at the boundary of two crustal plates.

But Professor Wyss Wai Shu Yim, of the University of Hong Kong's earth sciences department, disagrees and echoes McFeat-Smith's concern. 'I think the Hong Kong government does not consider earthquakes are a serious matter,' the professor says. 'It should change its thinking about the loading of the crust and the sedimentation.'

He wrote a paper in 2009 about the long-term subsidence of the Pearl River Delta and points out that increased stress caused by human activity and construction waste dumping may have changed the area's equilibrium.

His departmental colleague Professor Lung Sang Chan says a lack of recorded major earthquakes in Hong Kong does not mean they cannot happen. It is also wrong to focus only on Hong Kong. 'A sizeable earthquake does not have to be close to Hong Kong to be able to cause big damage,' he says.

A Buildings Department engineer says the city's buildings are designed to resist strong winds, but, apart from strengthening of structures like the airport, highways and MTR stations, 'there is no proofing for earthquakes specifically'.

McFeat-Smith believes the city should not have been built at all. 'If you think about building, you would not choose here,' he says. 'It is a silly place to build a city.'