It has long been recognized that Nepal faces high earthquake hazard, with the most recent large (Mw>7.5) events in 1833 and 1934. When the 25 April 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha earthquake struck, it appeared initially to be a realization of worst fears. In spite of its large magnitude and proximity to the densely populated Kathmandu valley, however, the level of damage was lower than anticipated, with most vernacular structures within the valley experiencing little or no structural damage. Outside the valley, catastrophic damage did occur in some villages, associated with the high vulnerability of stone masonry construction and, in many cases, landsliding. The unexpected observations from this expected earthquake provide an urgent impetus to understand the event itself and to better characterize hazard from future large Himalayan earthquakes. Toward this end, articles in this special focus section present and describe available data sets and initial results that better illuminate and interpret the earthquake and its effects.