New research suggests that severe earthquakes can permanently deform the crust of the earth, challenging long-held models that posited that all damage from quakes is naturally repaired over time. A paper published yesterday in Nature Geoscience reports that earthquakes of magnitude 7 or larger caused permanent changes in the crust within the Atacama Desert in Chile. About 1.5 to 10 percent of certain deformations appear to have been lasting, though deeper in the earth such damage may be less common.
The researchers believe that existing models used to explain how earthquakes work must be revised to account for their findings, but it's not total destruction: the planet is still predominantly repairable, just not completely mendable as a 1910 study first determined. Researchers only now identified lasting deformation after looking within the Atacama Desert, which is one of the few places that the phenomenon may have been observable. The location has frequent earthquakes, and its arid and unaltered environment allowed signs of the quakes to remain intact for the researchers to discover.