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A career built on shaky ground

Scientist dedicated to studying earthquakes hopes to be able to predict them one day, report Yuan Quan and Jia Zhao.

Xinhua | Updated: 2023-03-13 08:26
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The scientist (left) gives a keynote speech at an international academic exchange conference in Changsha, Hunan province in 2019.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Many people, when asked to picture a woman of the Tibetan ethnic group, will conjure up images based on tradition. These could involve a weaver, a shepherdess or someone who performs folk dancing in music videos. However, Zeren Zhima does not conform to any of these stereotypes.

She is often spotted carrying a heavy laptop with complicated diagrams and bell curves displayed on screen. She spends hours every day typing computer code and processing mass data received from a satellite more than 500 kilometers away.

Despite her origins in a remote area of the Tibetan countryside in Southwest China's Sichuan province, Zeren Zhima now works at the cutting edge of modern science, specializing in the physics of Earth and space.

Working at the National Institute of Natural Hazards, she is the chief designer of the application system for China's first seismo-electromagnetic satellite, Zhangheng-1. In service for five years, the satellite, which is named after the inventor of an ancient Chinese seismograph, has provided a large amount of scientific data on earthquakes around the globe.

Before a quake occurs, rock or tectonic plate movements deep below ground generate electromagnetic waves, which can travel through the air and even space. The satellite was designed to capture the electromagnetic signals.

By analyzing the data, scientists can trace the electromagnetic circumstances of previous ruptures and identify natural laws that will eventually help forecast impending quakes.

Using a space satellite to measure the shaking of the Earth's surface can also be challenging. Some countries have launched similar satellites before, but they have all been retired from service. Zeren Zhima says it may take years before scientists can realize the goal of predicting earthquakes.

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