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University Honors U.S. Seismologist

July 2, 2004

COSTA Rica was shaken by more than6,000 earthquakes last year, although somewere nothing more than a shiver throughthe country’s faults.Regardless of size, seismologists at theUniversidad Nacional (UNA) in Herediarecorded every one.They have been doing so for the past 20years, thanks in part to the efforts ofCalifornia resident Karen Cook McNally.McNally is credited with establishingthe country’s national seismological networkin 1984 and was honored for doing sothis week.The UNA administration bestowed theU.S. seismologist with the 2004Universidad Nacional Medalla at a ceremonyTuesday at the Gran Hotel CostaRica in downtown San José.WHEN McNally arrived in Costa Rica in1981, at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy,the then-director of the University ofCalifornia, Santa Cruz, RichterSeismological Institute was greeted with littlemore than journals and photos to understandthis country’s seismological situation.Although parts of the country had beendevastated by quakes such as the one that hitCartago in 1910, no network existed torecord and evaluate the tremors, McNallysaid.However, she was inspired by the eagernessof the young scientists she found here,and decided to stay for several years, shesaid.“She became like a godmother to theseismic scientists here,” UNA rector SoniaMora said this week.McNally’s efforts have since providedscientists at the Volcanological andSeismological Observatory of Costa Rica(OVSICORI) at UNA with the knowledgeand tools to study the country’s quakes,particularly those that jolted the country in1990 and 1991.The data have not only been used to betterunderstand Costa Rica’s tectonic system,but have been shared with internationalnetworks.“COSTA Rica’s plate system is lesscomplicated compared to the complicateddynamics of, say, New Zealand, China orJapan,” McNally said. “So it is easier tounderstand.”Despite improvements in investigation,scientists are still far from being able topredict earthquakes, McNally said.However, they can say, for example,that because the fault line near Quepos, onthe central Pacific coast, is slipping, thelikelihood of a major earthquake there hasdecreased.She also said it is a myth that a seriesof small tremors make a larger quakeunlikely.“We expect that there will be another bigquake soon. The best we can do is first ofall identify zones where large earthquakesare most likely,” she said. “It seems to methat Mother Nature always has surprisesfor us. All we can do is build data, proposehypothesis, and hope one day we will beable to predict earthquakes in the shortterm. But we are not there yet.”The UNA Medalla is given to CostaRicans or foreigners who have inspiredsociety through art, science, humanities orculture, Mora said.

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