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Earthquake research: hope for the perfect prediction

Earthquake researchers gather information on seismic activity in the earth’s crust in the hope of detecting impending tremors at an early stage. As a result, GFZ, established in 1992, can be found at work wherever the earth quakes, be it in Chile, one of the most active earthquake regions in the world, or the Indian Ocean. Here, GFZ is also developing a tsunami early-warning system.

Earthquake research is international. Some 200 of the 350 scientists at GFZ come from abroad. In Potsdam they are developing new measuring techniques and simulations and employing them in endangered areas.

100 measurements per second

One important tool for tracking down the causes of earthquakes are deep boreholes. GFZ is involved in work at several sites such as the San Andreas Fault in California and the Atacama Desert in Chile. Here a network of measuring stations delivers up to 100 measurements per second and sends them to GFZ and its international partners.

Animal sense

In China researchers are investigating the extent to which animal behaviour is relevant to earthquake prediction. It has frequently been reported that a few days before a major quake, snakes leave their holes and birds their nests. Back in 1975, researchers predicted a serious earthquake in north eastern China on the basis of similar observations, and evacuated the population.

But despite all the advances there is still no reliable method of predicting earthquakes.

The “other” kind of earthquake research: minimising the consequences

What the authorities, construction companies and people themselves can do to protect themselves from the appalling consequences of an earthquake is the subject of research at the university in Padua, in northern Italy. Here you can find the world’s largest earthquake simulator, a 2.4 metre-thick reinforced concrete shaking table measuring a good 200 square metres. On this base, completely furnished accommodation and even reduced-scale skyscrapers are constructed, with a maximum weight of 70 metric tons. An hydraulic system excites the table and simulates an earthquake with a magnitude of more than seven. The insights gained can be applied in practice. One important finding has shown that most of the injuries incurred during low-level tremors are not caused by houses collapsing but by cupboards and televisions falling over.

What do you think?

Have you experienced earthquakes? And how did you behave in such a threatening situation? How reliable are prognoses? Some people claim that nature becomes unnaturally still before the earth starts to rumble.

August 2011

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