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Dossier: How the latest tech is cracking the earthquake code

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Tectonics
Dossier: How the latest tech is cracking the earthquake code
12 Jul
In the 4th century BC, Aristotle proposed that earthquakes were caused by winds trapped in subterranean caves. Small tremors were triggered by air pushing on the cavern roofs, large ones by air breaking the surface. We now know a good deal more about how and why earthquakes happen. Yet the most important part of the jigsaw – when they will happen – continues to confound us as much as it did the ancient Greeks

Earthquake WeekAsk any geologist the direct question ‘will we ever predict earthquakes in the way we can predict the arrival of a hurricane?’ and you will elicit a brusque answer: ‘No.’

Some, such as Jean-Philippe Avouac of the Tectonics Observatory at the California Institute of Technology, elaborate a little further: ‘I just don’t think we will ever be able to do that. It will always be on the other side of the hill.’

The good news is that our understanding of how earthquakes happen and how to mitigate their impact is increasing rapidly. Fortified by improved data and technology, governments – or at least, those of developed nations – are on the point of offering short-notice alerts of tremors in real time, which may just buy their citizens precious seconds to head for safety.

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The need for greater understanding and preparation is more urgent as urban populations expand. Six of history’s ten costliest earthquakes have occurred in the past 13 years, and five have affected major metropolitan areas. Japan’s 2011 Tohoku/Fukushima earthquake was the costliest in history at nearly $300billion. ‘This is a recognition of the expansion of urban areas and an expression of the importance of building codes,’ says Andy Michael, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

As cities become ever more densely populated, their inhabitants are surrounding themselves with infrastructure – roads, bridges, and buildings – that become deadly hazards during a disaster and expensive to repair. Furthermore, the very factors that make coastal cities appealing also amplify their danger. Many are built alongside tectonic faults that mirror coastlines and which offer access to the sea and fertile, crop-yielding soils.

A strong case can be made for future expansion of cities to take into account their proximity to seismic areas, according to Kris Hartley, assistant professor of Asian and policy studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. ‘If there is a model for how a country can gently nudge growth towards safer regions, this could be replicated in the case of exiting seismically prone regions as well,’ he suggests. ‘The unfortunate side of that is that many people have to experience first-hand that destruction in their lives before they embark on such a move...’

You have reached the end of this preview of our in-depth look at the ways advancements in technology are improving the scientific art of earthquake detection. To read the full feature, be sure to pick up the July 2019 issue of Geographical today!
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