USTIN, Texas — Earthquakes — like lightning — strike
unpredictably. The Earth’s tectonic plates, however,
hide subtle warnings that a major fault may soon break.
Like forecasting a thunderstorm, knowing how to read
the warnings could help communities protect lives,
infrastructure and local economies.
For decades, scientists have struggled to reliably give forecasts for major earthquake hotspots, but now, an international team of scientists led by The University of Texas at Austin has embarked on a new initiative to do just that.
Fig 1: A simulation of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Scientists use computers to unravel the mechanics of tectonic faults, but could they be used to forecast future earthquakes? Credit: Alice Gabriel
“Physics-based forecasting is what we’re trying to achieve,”
said project lead Thorsten Becker, a professor at UT’s Jackson
School of Geosciences.
The five-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation
(NSF), will develop new computing tools, software and instructional
material focused on forecast modeling. The team will also train
students, hold workshops and recruit new computational geoscientists
by drawing on overlooked talent pools and reaching out to underserved
The ultimate goal: computer models that can forecast the chances
of an earthquake happening and its likely impact, similar to those
used to predict the weather but on longer timescales.
Becker doesn’t expect to see earthquake “weather” forecasts
within five years, but he believes the idea is now technically
possible. The bulk of what remains is figuring out the physics
governing earthquakes and their inherent uncertainties: key
ingredients in the forecasting process.
The UT scientists will team up with researchers at universities
and national labs working on three of the world’s earthquake
hotspots: the U.S. Pacific Northwest, New Zealand and Japan. The
sites selected are all subduction zones — places where tectonic
plates meet. The differences between them will allow researchers
to test their models and figure out what conditions to look for
when deciding whether an earthquake is likely.
Subduction zones are important because they are the sites of the
world’s most powerful earthquakes and can trigger dangerous tsunamis,
such as the one following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that
killed almost a quarter of a million people in 14 countries.
They are a challenge to study, however, because they are usually
situated offshore and driven by deep geologic forces that take
hundreds to millions of years to unfold, at scales from fractions
of an inch to thousands of miles. That’s why earthquake scientists
turn to computers to simulate faults and their tectonic settings.
The new project will look for gaps in the physics and figure out
what needs to be measured to make the simulations more useful
Fig 2:GPS sites like this one in New Zealand continuously monitor changes in the Earth’s surface near earthquake hotspots. The new project led by UT Austin is an ambitious physics-driven effort to learn how to spot earthquake warning signs at the world’s subduction zones. Credit: GNS Science/EQC
“It’s a little bit like calculating the probability of a pandemic,”
said Laura Wallace, a research scientist at the University of Texas
Institute for Geophysics, who is based in New Zealand. “You can’t
know when and where the next one will happen, but you can look at
factors that make it more likely and model how it might unfold.”
Becker and Wallace are joined on the project by co-leaders Alice
Gabriel, an earthquake physicist at the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography and LMU Munich, Germany, and Dana Thomas, a Jackson
School outreach coordinator who will help recruit a new generation
of computational geoscientists. The project includes scientists
at the Jackson School, its Institute for Geophysics, UT’s Oden
Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, and
supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.
Collaborating institutions on the $2.8 million project are UT
Austin, the University of California at San Diego, Indiana
University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ETH
Zürich, Utrecht University, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth
Science and Technology, the Earthquake Research Institute at
the University of Tokyo, NIED, and New Zealand’s GNS Science.
Provided by the IKCEST Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Service System