Earthquakes are natural disasters that cause immense damage to life and property. They not only leave thousands of people homeless, but also ruin the lives of millions across the globe. Earthquakes affect many parts of the world every year. Also, earthquakes further lead to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions causing even more damage.
Located inside Yellowstone National Park, the caldera is dubbed a supervolcano due to its capability to inflict untold devastation on a global scale in the event of a supereruption. It was formed during the last three big events – the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption 1.3 million years ago and the Lava Creek eruption approximately 630,000 years ago. The area is constantly monitored by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for signs an eruption is on the way, but science writer Bryan Walsh painted a bleak picture of what could happen in the future.
In his recently-published book ‘End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World,’ he wrote: “First would come a swarm of increasingly intense earthquakes, a sign that magma was rushing toward the surface. “The pressure would build until, like champagne in a bottle given a vigorous shake, the magma would burst through the ground in a titanic eruption that would discharge the toxic innards of the Earth to the air. “It would continue for days, burying Yellowstone in lava within a forty-mile radius of the eruption.”
He detailed how Yellowstone’s plume of ash, lava, and volcanic gases would reach a height of at least 15 miles, and make their way across North America. Mr Walsh added: “Hospitals would be choked with victims coughing up blood as the silicate in the ash slashed at their lungs.” Worst still, the ash could poison crops and create a worldwide volcanic winter – in which global average temperatures could plunge as much as 8C for a decade. This could produce a recipe for a global starvation event that may endanger hundreds of millions of people, he warned.
Mr Walsh continued in the 2019 text: “A Yellowstone supervolcano eruption would be the first truly continental-scale disaster. “In every past catastrophe – hurricanes, earthquakes, floods – most of the US remained untouched, which meant safe parts could divert aid to and take in refugees from affected regions. “But no corner of the continental US would be exempt from the effects of a supervolcano. “A FEMA estimate pegged the total damage to the US from a Yellowstone supervolcano at $3trillion (£2.4trillion), some 16 percent of the country’s GDP.”
There is no natural disaster sneakier than an earthquake. Hurricanes can be predicted and tracked weeks in advance, and even tornados, monsoons and blizzards at least have seasons. But earthquakes strike entirely without warning. In the United States, the scientific experts on all things geology are at the US Geological Survey. Their webpage on earthquake prediction starts: “Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.” Well, that is pretty clear!
Earthquake warnings could save thousands of lives each year, however earthquakes have very low predictability in short term, i.e. in most cases, there is no warning – even a few minutes before an earthquake. However, in most cases, a much higher degree of predictability exists in long term – in the sense that if a certain area is sitting on a fault line, it can be said that over a long period of time, there is a high risk of earthquake. However, whether the earthquake occurs within the next few minutes, few years, few decades – or, maybe a few centuries might not be predicted.
Many countries monitor the seismic activity below the earth. Since there are a lot of seismic activities below the earth on a continuous basis, these countries are not necessarily interested in these low-intensity activities. However, their interest is to see if there is a sudden increase in seismic activities. An increase in seismic activity could imply an impending earthquake in the near-future. However, how close (in “time”) might still not be predictable.
Scientists have devised methods for predicting many natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis JPL scientists have been using radar and GPS technology to monitor tectonic movements in an attempt to predict such a disaster, and they now believe it’s extremely likely that an earthquake measuring more than 5.0 on the Richter scale will strike Southern California.
Our understanding of what makes an earthquake happen is based on the theory of plate tectonics, which states that Earth’s outer shell is divided into several plates that glide over the mantle, the rocky inner layer above the core. The plates act like a hard and rigid shell compared to Earth’s mantle. This strong outer layer is called the lithosphere, which is 100 km (60 miles) thick, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The lithosphere includes the crust and outer part of the mantle. Below the lithosphere is the asthenosphere, which is malleable or partially malleable, allowing the lithosphere to move around. How it moves around is an evolving idea.
Sometimes during their relative shifting, these tectonic plates bump into one another as they attempt to slide past. The jagged boundary edges of these plates get stuck, while the rest of the plate continues to move, storing up energy along the plate boundary in the process. Once the inner portion of the plate has moved enough to force the edges to overcome the friction holding them together to become unstuck, that stored energy radiates away in waves rippling through the Earth’s rocky surface. These waves shake the ground as they move through it, and an earthquake occurs.
Earthquake prediction is a branch of the science of seismology concerned with the specification of the time, location, and magnitude of future earthquakes within stated limits, and particularly “the determination of parameters for the next strong earthquake to occur in a region. Earthquake prediction is sometimes distinguished from earthquake forecasting, which can be defined as the probabilistic assessment of general earthquake hazard, including the frequency and magnitude of damaging earthquakes in a given area over years or decades. Prediction can be further distinguished from earthquake warning systems, which upon detection of an earthquake, provide a real-time warning of seconds to neighboring regions that might be affected.
To determine how a possible early warning sign (or signs) may translate into these four factors requires scientists to either look for patterns in earthquakes that have already occurred or create sophisticated mathematical models of the movement of known tectonic plates. Scientists have attempted to link multiple natural factors that have preceded earthquakes in the past with the earthquake itself, including increased amounts of radon in local water sources, rising levels of ground water, changes in electromagnetic activity and even odd animal behavior. For example, before the main rupture that ultimately causes a quake, smaller breaks called micro-fissures will form in subsurface rock. These smaller cracks change the rock’s permeability, or, in other words, they allow water to more easily pass through the rock. The more permeable rock might then lead to changes in ground water levels. This same change in permeability could also lead to the escape of radon which forms by radioactive decay of elements in certain minerals.
Scientists have attempted to model specific fault lines. However, constructing these models is incredibly challenging due in no small part to the difficulty in studying how rocks and minerals behave at the increased temperatures and pressures toward the Earth’s core. Such conditions are challenging to recreate in the lab, and although geologists have drilled boreholes in the San Andreas Fault Zone to study the conditions there, such efforts are expensive and not easy.
Another difficulty in earthquake prediction is that small earthquakes, those that register here on the surface only slightly or not at all, and larger earthquakes are thought to start the same way despite ultimately having different strengths and durations. Thus there may not be a simple way to decipher whether an early warning sign is an omen of a major, more destructive quake or a tiny tremble.
NASA’s radar mapping technology
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has developed radar-based mapping technology that uses airborne pictures to create interferograms, which depict the size of motions which have occurred over a period of time underneath the ground. Study is undergoing to understand these motion patterns and how they might correspond to the next big quake, but this is a major step forward in the ability to map fault systems. Researchers hope that the technology will be able to improve hazard map outlooks from 30 years to somewhere between five and ten years.
In the new study — which was presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, in Seattle, and published in Geophysical Research Letters — geologists Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Rebecca Bendick of the University of Montana, tracked the incidence of magnitude 7 or greater earthquakes worldwide since 1900.
When a slowdown occurs, the molten core continues to strain outward, obeying Newton’s fundamental law that objects in motion will try as hard as they can to remain in motion. When a slowdown occurs, the molten core continues to strain outward, obeying Newton’s fundamental law that objects in motion will try as hard as they can to remain in motion.
That outward pressure slowly propagates through the rocks and plates and faults that lie above it. Bilham and Bendick calculate that it takes five to six years for the energy sent out by the core to radiate to the upper layers of the planet where quakes occur, meaning that after the atomic clock notices a slowdown you’ve got five to six years before you’d better buckle up.
That outward pressure slowly propagates through the rocks and plates and faults that lie above it. Bilham and Bendick calculate that it takes five to six years for the energy sent out by the core to radiate to the upper layers of the planet where quakes occur, meaning that after the atomic clock notices a slowdown you’ve got five to six years before you’d better buckle up. The last such time the planet slowed was in 2011, and recent events suggest a troubling pattern again playing out: the magnitude 7.1 quake that struck Mexico City on Sept. 19; the 7.3 event on the Iran-Iraq border on Nov. 12; and the 7.0 off New Caledonia on Nov. 19.
NASA researcher says ionized air molecules may help predict earthquakes in advance
Recently, NASA researcher Friedemann Freund has proposed what many seismologists believe is impossible: a way to predict earthquakes before the tremors begin. Freund’s theory revolves around the concept that pressurized rock under the Earth’s surface emits an electrical current that ionizes air molecules, something that could be monitored and measured in earthquake-prone regions.
Freund is using conductivity sensors to monitor air molecules along fault lines in Alaska and on the San Andreas Fault in California. By attempting to detect changes in ionization there, he hopes to connect the data to seismic records and begin to understand the correlation. He says it’s already working. “Whenever there was a moderate or big earthquake there was indeed a large increase in air conductivity,” he said. Freund aims to develop a Global Earthquake Forecast System that would use ionization reporting to issue earthquake warnings up to 24 hours in advance.
Machine learning-detected signal predicts time to earthquake
Machine-learning research published in two related papers published in Nature Geoscience in Dec 2018, reports the detection of seismic signals accurately predicting the Cascadia fault’s slow slippage, a type of failure observed to precede large earthquakes in other subduction zones.
The team decided to apply their new paradigm to the real world: Cascadia. Recent research reveals that Cascadia has been active, but noted activity has been seemingly random. This team analyzed 12 years of real data from seismic stations in the region and found similar signals and results: Cascadia’s constant tremors quantify the displacement of the slowly slipping portion of the subduction zone. In the laboratory, the authors identified a similar signal that accurately predicted a broad range of fault failure. Careful monitoring in Cascadia may provide new information on the locked zone to provide an early warning system.
Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers applied machine learning to analyze Cascadia data and discovered the megathrust broadcasts a constant tremor, a fingerprint of the fault’s displacement. More importantly, they found a direct parallel between the loudness of the fault’s acoustic signal and its physical changes. Cascadia’s groans, previously discounted as meaningless noise, foretold its fragility.
“Cascadia’s behavior was buried in the data. Until machine learning revealed precise patterns, we all discarded the continuous signal as noise, but it was full of rich information. We discovered a highly predictable sound pattern that indicates slippage and fault failure,” said Los Alamos scientist Paul Johnson. “We also found a precise link between the fragility of the fault and the signal’s strength, which can help us more accurately predict a megaquake.”
The new papers were authored by Johnson, Bertrand Rouet-Leduc and Claudia Hulbert from the Laboratory’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, Christopher Ren from the Laboratory’s Intelligence and Space Research Division and collaborators at Pennsylvania State University.
Machine learning crunches massive seismic data sets to find distinct patterns by learning from self-adjusting algorithms to create decision trees that select and retest a series of questions and answers. Last year, the team simulated an earthquake in a laboratory, using steel blocks interacting with rocks and pistons, and recorded sounds that they analyzed by machine learning. They discovered that the numerous seismic signals, previously discounted as meaningless noise, pinpointed when the simulated fault would slip, a major advance towards earthquake prediction. Faster, more powerful quakes had louder signals.
One Concern raises $20 million for AI that predicts the impact of natural disasters
One Concern today announced in 2017 it has closed a $20 million funding round to “future proof the world,” according to a company spokesperson. The funding will be used for research and development as One Concern expands its use of machine learning to predict and mitigate the impact of natural disasters like fires, floods, and hurricanes after they happen.
Predictive AI from One Concern, called Seismic Concern, currently focuses on earthquake preparedness and response. For example, AI models trained with information about building structural integrity and seismic activity are deployed to help cities know where to dispatch emergency workers after an earthquake. Demographics of people impacted, such as age and economic status, are also provided. The One Concern software pulls geological and structural data from a variety of public and private sources and uses machine learning to predict the impact of an earthquake down to individual city blocks and buildings. Real-time information input during an earthquake improves how the system responds. And earthquakes represent just the start for the company, which plans to launch a similar program for floods and eventually other natural disasters.
Our AI-based technology will assign a unique, verified ‘digital fingerprint’ to every natural or manmade element, from the smallest rock to complete structures to mega cities and eventually, the entire planet,” cofounder Ahmad Wani said in a Medium post today. “One Concern will provide insights across the entire time horizon — whether it’s days before a flood, minutes after an earthquake, or forward-looking policy and planning.” One Concern is not the only company that sees an opportunity to use data to rethink disaster response. The mapping company Esri has built rapid-response software that shows expected damage from disasters like earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes.