UH Geologist Finds Faults That Could Hurt Houston

It's not common knowledge, but a good portion of the Houston area sits on faults. A University of Houston Geologist recently completed a comprehensive study that could prove useful to builders. Pat Hernandez has the story.
Geologists have known that faults exist in Southeast Texas, but activity in the Lone Star pales in comparison to California and even the MidWest. Yet shifting fault lines, even minor ones, can be a problem. Shuhab Khan, an assistant professor in the GeoSciences Department at the University of Houston, says we might tend to take this nuisance for granted.

"Yes...these faults are moving slowly. Therefore, in tens of years, or maybe, five to ten years, walls are gonna be breaking, driveways would have damages, roads would be repaired time and again."

The Earth's surface is made up of a series of large plates, like pieces of a giant jig-saw puzzle. Fault lines occur from the constant movement of these plates. Dr Khan tells how he became interested in the faults of Houston.

"There was an Allison Recovery Project in that they wanted to make very accurate data. They acquired LIDAR data, laser data to create a best digital elevation models for flood control. When I looked at that data, we found amazing features, linear features. And when we compared that with older data, those are faults. So what we did with that data, we mapped those faults very precisely and now, we could avoid some of those areas where there are active faults and we could construct high rise buildings in areas where there are no faults."

Khan was assisted in his project by graduate student Richard Engelkemeir, who says there are some 300-faults in the area. The more prominent faults have names.

"The two most extensive faults are the Longpoint Fault which runs to Kirkwood and Memorial, I-ten, Beltway-8 intersection. It keeps on running up past Longpoint and seems to end near 290. Another series of faults, there are several faults that have different names is the Addicks Fault System. It runs from Barker Reservoir west of Highway Six and south of I-ten all the way northwest to Bush Intercontinental Airport."

Faults can be found inside the loop, in Baytown, the Battleground Fault near the San Jacinto Monument and others in the southeast that are associated with salt domes. The technology used by Engelkemier and Khan was also useful to the Harris County Flood Control District. Spokeswoman Heather Saucier.

"After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 we partnered with FEMA and embarked upon a 32 million dollar study to produce brand new flood insurance rate maps or flood plains maps, as they're sometimes called, for Harris County. If we can better pinpoint our topography in the lay of the land, we can more accurately define our our flood plains."

Khan has now shifted his fault finding quest to Fort Bend County near the Brazos River.

"That could be a serious concern. If it breaks the levee, similarly, these faults also in the long run. If the repair work is not happening, they may cause some big damage, like damage to bayous or other places."

Pat Hernandez. KUHF- Houston Public Radio News.

Pat Hernandez

Reporter

Pat Hernandez is a general assignments reporter who joined the KUHF news staff in February of 2008...