Earthquakes without frontiers
A new project is studying a neglected area of earthquake science - the 10 million square kilometres of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain belt that stretches from Italy across Greece and Turkey, through the Middle East and central Asia to southern China.
Earthquakes in areas like these, in the middle of continents, cause many more deaths than those on better-publicised high-risk zones around the boundaries between oceanic plates, like the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'. There, the dangers are well-known; people are prepared and buildings are designed to stand up to seismic punishment.
In the continental interior, earthquakes are rare but devastating, often taking place at previously unknown and inactive faults. The results are often horrifying; recent unexpected quakes in Bam, Iran in 2003, Muzzafarabad, Pakistain in 2005 and Wenchuan, China in 2008, for instance, collectively killed 175,000 people, with death rates approaching 30 per cent of the local population. By contrast, the quakes in New Zealand and Japan early last year killed just 0.1 and 0.4 per cent of the population respectively.
In the past 120 years, there have been about 130 earthquakes in which more than 1000 people have died. About 100 of them took place in the interior of continents, causing at least 1.4 million deaths. It's a particular problem because cities and trade routes often grow up where there's groundwater, which tends to coincide with the presence of faults. So big urban populations in cities like Tehran, Tabriz and Ashkhabad are often concentrated in high-risk areas.
The £3.5 million five-year 'Earthquakes without frontiers' project aims not only to pinpoint many areas of high risk for the first time, but also to find out more about the vulnerabilities of particular communities and to communicate all this to policy-makers so they can do something about it. It'll involve both physical and social scientists, working in multinational collaborations across the whole region.
Scientists will use ground- and space-based technology to examine the relationship between earthquake faults and the wider landscape, reading the geological signs that may provide warning before a devastating quake. Meanwhile the social scientists will explore what makes communities vulnerable or resilient in the face of these disasters, and a third group will focus on communicating to governments and other policy-makers.
The project is funded by NERC and the Economic and Social Research Council. It includes researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Durham, Hull, Leeds, Northumbria and Oxford; from the Overseas Development Institute, British Geological Survey, National Centre for Earth Observation and Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, as well as collaborators in China, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.
Posted on 31 May 2012
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