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The trouble with earthquakes…

A headline we read the other day summed it up..

“Scientists can’t predict earthquakes but toads might be able to”

It was about a study published in the Journal of Zoology which claimed that toads had detected the L’Aquila earthquake days before it struck.
Zoologist Dr Rachel Grant studying toads 74 km away from the L’Aquila epicentre reported that 96% of the male toads inexplicably left their colony in the days before the quake.

Laboratory technician Giampaolo Giuliani claimed he too predicted the L’Aquila earthquake by measuring emissions of radon gases. However, Giuliani was banned from publicizing his findings after previously causing panic for making predictions that failed to materialize.

To the frustration of the media, government policy makers and most importantly people living on fault lines, any proven method of earthquake prediction continues to elude the scientific community.

Beyond the muddle, what, if any progress is being made?

In Central Italy we met Dr Gerald Roberts to find out about a relatively new school of thought which is changing the way scientists understand earthquake risk.

The theory of earthquake geology is that by better understanding the fault lines that cause earthquakes you improve understanding of where and even when an earthquake might happen. And whilst you may never be able to predict exact timings of earthquakes you can better plan on how to cope with them when they do occur.

The idea is that if you can work out how many earthquakes a particular fault line has produced over history and how often it produces them you can establish a way of comparing the relative risk from each fault line and base earthquake preparation on that information.

When you consider that every village in this area of central Italy is within 10 km of a fault line that seems like pretty useful information but it’s information that’s not easy to come by

We found out more about new techniques being used to do that.

Whilst prediction may still be a long way off, it seemed to us that this kind of information, which isn’t out there at the moment, could dramatically improve efforts to assess and mitigate against earthquake risk in different areas. As usual it comes down to issues of time and money.

This is just a short introduction to earthquake geology. We can’t do full justice to the work of Gerald and his colleagues here.

Research Collaborators:

Gerald P. Roberts1, Giancanio Sileo2, Alberto Pizzi3, Stefano Pucci4, Joanna Faure Walker1, Max Wilkinson5, Ken McCaffrey5, Richard J. Phillips6, Alessandro M. Michetti2, Luca Guerrieri7, Anna Maria Blumetti7, Eutizio Vittori7, Patience Cowie8, Peter Sammonds1, Paolo Galli9, Paolo Boncio3, Richard Walters10,

1 – Research School of Earth Sciences, Birkbeck/UCL, University of London, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT. United Kingdom.
2 – Università degli Studi dell’Insubria – Sede di Como, Facoltà di Scienze MM. FF. NN., Dipartimento di Scienze Chimiche ed Ambientali, Via Valleggio, 11 – 22100 Como – Italy.
3 – Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra
Università “G. d’Annunzio” Chieti
 Campus Universitario, 66013 – Chieti, Italy.
4- Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia Sismologia e Tettonofisica, Via di Vigna Murata, 605 00143 Roma, Italy.
5 – Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, Science Labs, Durham DH1 3LE. United Kingdom.
6 – Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, LS2 9LT, UK
7 – Geological Survey of Italy, ISPRA – High Institute for the Environmental Protection and Research, Via Curtatone, 3 – 00185 Roma, Italy.
8 – Institute of Geography, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street, Edinburgh EH8 9XP, Scotland, United Kingdom.
9 – Dipartimento della Protezione Civile Nazionale, Rome, Italy.
10 – COMET, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


1) NERC Urgency Grant NE/H003266/1. A LiDAR and field study of surface rupture and post-seismic slip for the 6th April 2009 L’Aquila Earthquake (M6.3). Dr. K. McCaffrey, Dr. G. Roberts, Prof. P. Cowie. £67,184. (April 2009-May 2010).
2) NERC Standard Grant NE/E01545X/1. Testing Theoretical models for Earthquake Clustering using 36Cl Cosmogenic Exposure Dating of Active Normal Faults in Central Italy. Dr. P. Cowie, Dr. G. Roberts. Dr. K. McCaffrey £554,466. (October 2007-2010).
3) NERC Standard Grant NE/B504165/1. Integrated field and numerical test of stream erosion models using the transient response of bedrock rivers to tectonic forcing. Dr. P. Cowie, Dr. G. Roberts. £149,476. (October 2004-2007 with a 1 year no-cost extension).
4) NERC Small Grant GR9/02995. Understanding non-uniform earthquake recurrence intervals associated with rupture of small portions of larger faults: implications for evaluating seismic risk. Dr. G. Roberts. £21,882. (July 1997-July 1999)

5 Responses to “The trouble with earthquakes…”

Phil on 5/10/2010 at 8:46 pm said :

Gripping stuff. The last time I was this interested was reading Dawkins’ latest.
One thought: For a given average rate of slip, would the frequency of quakes be (amongst all that other stuff) inversely proportional to the elasticity of the rock ….. or is that too complicated to take into account given the (presumably) large number of strata subjected to the fault ?

mel on 12/10/2010 at 10:03 am said :

Think i’d be getting a pet toad and when it scarpered I wouldn’t be far behind!

Colin on 12/10/2010 at 8:26 pm said :

Great documentary guys, although I think we are a few lifetimes away from predicting earthquakes (unless there is another scientific breakthrough, such as plate techtonics), we simply do not have enough reliable data from history to even think about calculating an average, but at least Geologists are on the right track.

Rosalba Mallinger on 14/12/2010 at 2:51 am said :

When i visit a blog, chances are that I see that the construction is poor and the writting bad. On the contrary,I have to say that you have done a good job here.

radon måling on 14/12/2010 at 10:35 am said :

I think it will be possible to predict earthquakes when we have a shortcut to test related incidence like Earth’s magnetic field, mounting stress within rock and radon emission rate and level in the air. This is very sad that we have no testing method which is100% working on time. Thanks for this documentary, this reminds me the earthquake of Haiti.

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