LONDON (AlertNet) - Earthquake experts are launching a major £3.5 million study to identify faults in the earth’s crust in the vast Alpine-Himalayan belt stretching from Italy to China.
They hope their work will help prevent the catastrophic loss of life and destruction seen in recent disasters in Iran, Pakistan and China.
Quakes in continental interiors claim more lives than those in the oceanic plate boundaries because they often happen on unknown faults, scientists say.
The impact is also often greater because many cities and trade routes lie on these faults.
“Large urban populations are now concentrated in vulnerable places, which is why so many recent earthquakes look like bull’s eye targeting of cities,” said Professor James Jackson of Cambridge University, which is leading the research.
The five-year Earthquakes without Frontiers project will pinpoint faults, study the vulnerabilities of communities and inform policy-makers so they can reduce the risks to life and property.
The team will use space-based as well as ground technology to examine in minute detail the link between faults and the landscape they have created in an area of some 10 million square kilometres (3.9 million sq miles), stretching from Europe, through the Middle East and Central Asia to China.
“The idea is to be able to read the geological signals in the landscape before a fault moves in an earthquake, so preparing people for the hazard where they live,” said Jackson of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.
In the last 120 years, there have been about 130 earthquakes in which at least 1,000 people have died. Of these, about 100 happened in continental interiors, causing at least 1.4 million deaths, Jackson said.
But up to now there has been less research in continental interiors than on oceanic plate boundaries, where well known faults include the Pacific Ring of Fire and the San Andreas Fault.
LIVING IN IGNORANCE
Earthquakes happen when faults move. Faults on oceanic plate boundaries are confined to narrow zones, which means seismic activity happens more often in the same place.
By contrast, faults in the continental interiors are spread over thousands of kilometres so quakes on the same fault may only repeat every few thousand years. As a result, communities are often unaware of the potential danger beneath them.
Recent unexpected earthquakes include the 2003 Bam quake in Iran, the 2005 Muzaffarabad quake in Pakistan and the 2008 quake in Wenchuan, China.
In some areas these quakes killed nearly a third of the local population. By comparison last year’s quakes in Japan and New Zealand killed less than 0.5 percent of the local population. Both countries have strict building codes and strategies for minimising the loss of life and reducing damage to infrastructure and property.
Scientists say another reason why quakes in continental regions can have such a terrible impact is because cities and trade routes often develop where there is ground water. This is particularly true in arid regions.
But the availability of ground water is related to the position of faults, which act as spring lines.
“In the Middle East and Central Asia this is a real problem,” said Jackson “Vast cities such as Tehran, Tabriz and Ashkhabad have grown up around faults because of water.”
The project, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, involves scientists from six British universities as well as other institutes and organisations and collaborators in China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Iran.