Tag Archives: hazard

When continents collide

Since 1900, 35 earthquakes worldwide have each killed at least 10,000 people. Of these, 26 were in the Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt – a broad “crumple zone” where the African, Arabian and Indian tectonic plates collide with Europe and Asia. Most of these deadly earthquakes were caused by the rupture of faults that had not previously been identified.

Tim Wright is Professor of Satellite Geodesy at the University of Leeds and Director of the Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET). His work has been at the forefront of developing the use of satellite radar for measuring tectonic and volcanic deformation.

Below is a lecture presented by Tim at the Geological Society talking about his work trying to understand the nature of seismic hazard within the Alpine-Himalayan region.

Plight of the Bangladeshi

Lying on the floodplains of the mighty Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers Bangladesh is a rich, fertile land. These giant river systems meet in the centre of the country and flow together into the Bay of Bengal which, at over 1600km wide, is the largest delta in the world.

Rising Sea Level

Bangladesh is often cited as one of the countries that will be most negatively affected by rising sea levels from human induced climate change. Two thirds of the country lies less than 5m above of sea level. With vast regions to the south much less than a 1m above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that just 1m rise in sea level could directly expose nearly 14 million people and result in potentially 17% land loss in southern Bangladesh.


Most of the country receives on average more than 2.5m of rainfall a year, 80% of which falls in about 4 months during the peak monsoon season, resulting in large annual floods. The flood waters bring nutrient rich clays and silts from the high Himalayas and deposit them on the river floodplains. These rich soils produce bountiful harvests of rice and other crops. Unsurprisingly, farming is the most common profession.

A flooded street. Source: NASA

However floods, once welcomed by farmers and their families are now harbingers of disaster. Human induced climate change has resulted in more erratic monsoon weather patterns with often larger than normal volumes of water being delivered in shorter time intervals. The resulting floods have had devastating effects on the Bangladeshi people. In 2012 three large floods hit the country in swift succession between the months of July and September directly affecting more than 5 million people. These are now a common annual occurrence.


Bangladesh is also subject to annual tropical cyclones, storm surges and tornadoes. Some of the worst natural disasters in recorded history were results of cyclonic storms in the Bengal region. Among them, the 1970 Bhola cyclone which claimed over 500,000 lives! Worryingly new research into the impacts of climate change has shown that large cyclonic storms will become a more common occurrence in the years and decades to come.


The foothills of the great Himalayan mountain belt has historically been the location of many large earthquakes. Earthquakes in the continent tend to be more infrequent compared to regions such as Japan and California. However this makes them more unpredictable and often unexpected. But when one does occur it can result in significant ground shaking. The 1897 magnitude 8.1 and 1950 magnitude 8.7 Assam earthquakes were two of the biggest to hit the region in recent times. The current building stock in Bangladesh is poorly built and most are not built to withstand ground shaking in an earthquake. The collapse of poorly built buildings is the greatest hazard during an earthquake.

The Savar building collapse near Dhaka Bangladesh, which killed 1129 garment factory workers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what can we as earth scientists do?

Bangladesh has a population of over 160 million and among the highest population density of any country in the world. With the majority of the country built on river floodplains combined with widespread corruption and ignorance a large earthquake could quite possibly result in the greatest natural calamity to have ever hit the country!

Bangladesh needs to increase its resilience if its people are to survive the multitude of natural hazards they face. Earth scientists are well placed to understand the risks involved from these hazards and can play a key role in all aspects of building a resilient infrastructure.

Climate science research is ongoing and needs to continue to better understand the affect human induced climate is having and will have on the annual monsoon. This knowledge needs to be translated into rainfall variation and flooding potentials and communicated with the people who need this information. The socio-economic issues of a rising sea level needs to be addressed and plans put in place to allow big cities to efficiently absorb and cater for migrants moving away from hazard prone coastal regions. Hydro-geologists and geochemists are helping to find sustainable clean, arsenic free water sources for drinking and farming. Seismologists and earthquake scientists are working to better understand the seismic risk in the Himalayan foothills; produce more accurate hazard maps and importantly identify the active faults within the region.

These are to name but a few of the ways earth scientists can get involved. I believe it is our moral duty to translate the practical aspects of our science into real benefits for people.


More information:
[1] http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg2/index.phpidp=446
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2013/jan/23/bangladesh-floods-harbingers-disaster
[3] http://reliefweb.int/disaster/fl-2012-000106bgd
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Bangladesh_tropical_cyclones
[5] http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Main_Page

Corruption and earthquake hazards

Earthquakes are caused by the sudden release of energy stored on fractures in the Earth’s crust called faults. Every year they are responsible for thousands of fatalities around the world.

For this post I’d like to focus on the role of corruption in the building industry and its impact on lives lost in earthquakes. The global construction industry was worth $8.7 trillion in 2012[3] and is recognised as being the most corrupt segment of the global economy[1].

Corruption in this industry takes the form of using inadequate and/or insufficient building materials, bribes to inspectors and civil authorities, substandard assembly methods and the inappropriate siting of buildings. Spontaneous building collapses even without earthquakes, such as the 2013 Savar factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1129 people, are a stark reminder of the consequences of construction oversight and a terrifying view into what could happen if there is an earthquake in these regions.

The Savar building collapse near Dhaka Bangladesh, which killed 1129 garment factory workers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 1999 Izmit earthquake (magnitude 7.4) in Turkey resulted in around 18,00 deaths. After the earthquake, inspectors found that nearly half of all the structures within the damage zone had failed to comply with building regulations[1].

Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham calculated that almost 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the last 3 decades occurred in countries that are poor and anomalously corrupt[4].

Corruption by itself is dangerous but when combined with poverty, it is disastrous. Corruption, poverty and ignorance essentially become indistinguishable for many low income countries. And even if corrupt practices are eliminated these countries will have inherited a building stock that is of poor quality and prone to failure in the next earthquake.

A pertinent quote from the famous Charles Richter in his 1970 retirement speech.

However, it’s not all bad news. There are some great examples of how reconstruction can happen under correct management and regulations to improve resilience to earthquakes and other natural hazards. For example, in 2012 the Turkish government passed the Law on the Regeneration of Areas Under Disaster Risk. Under these new guidelines all buildings that are not up to current earthquake risk standards will be demolished and rebuilt.

The reconstruction of the Macedonian capital of Skopje after it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 is another great example. Not only was all the infrastructure rebuilt to be earthquake-resistant, the city planners also ensured that the river Vardar was re-routed in order to control future flooding[5].

Achievements on this scale requires strong governance and management, and transparent national and local administration. With the rapid growth of cities into so-called megacities (>10 million population), often in high earthquake risk regions, this is even more important. We have yet to have an earthquake that has killed a million people. But at the rate these cities are growing under limited to no management, such an event might not be too far in the future.

More Information:
[1] Global Corruption Report 2005: Corruption in construction and post-conflict reconstruction, Transparency International
[2] Global Construction 2020: A Global Forecast for the construction industry over the next decade to 2020. (2010)
[3] Global Construction 2025:  A Global Forecast for the construction industry to 2025. (2013)
[4] Ambraseys, N. & Bilham, R., 2011
[5] Vladimir B. Ladinski 2010

Earthquake risk in the Himalaya

By Victoria Stevens

Earthquakes have not been releasing energy as fast as the energy has been building up along the Himalayan arc. Meaning that there could be a giant earthquake in the region placing millions at risk.

A new study of the 2000 km long Main Himalaya Thrust, the largest earthquake generating fault in the Himalaya, has revealed that large quakes could occur in any location along the Himalayan arc.

Unlike in subduction zones, where some patches of the fault are moving, or ‘creeping’ at a constant speed, in the Himalaya we don’t see any creeping patches. This means that the fault is fully ‘locked’, i.e. strain energy is building up most of the time. This energy is released suddenly during earthquakes. Because there are no creeping patches, there are no barriers to rupture, which means once an earthquake has started, it could rupture a very long way along the fault without anything to limit its size.

The degree of 'locking' on the Main Himalayan Thrust. Where the fault is red, its fully locked and white where its not locked. Source: Stevens and Avouac 2015
The degree of ‘locking’ on the Main Himalayan Thrust. Where the fault is red, its fully locked and white where its not locked. Source: Stevens and Avouac 2015

The study shows that the pattern of coupling, i.e. the degree of fault locking, has been stationary with time. From the coupling pattern, the rate of moment build-up can be found. This is how much energy is building up each year, and is also the amount that needs to be released in earthquakes if all the energy is released seismically.

Earthquakes have not been releasing energy as fast as the energy has been building up, so we may expect very large earthquakes in this region in the future. Studies of ancient earthquakes have shown that quakes approaching magnitude 9 have occurred previously in both the western and eastern halves of the Himalayas. It is not impossible that these giant earthquakes could occur again.

Night lights show large population densities living in the shadows of the Himalaya.

This has important implications for seismic hazard in the region. The population living in the Himalayas has increased dramatically in the past few decades, and most buildings are not resistant to large shaking caused by earthquakes. As we saw with the recent devastating April Gorkha-Nepal earthquake, the Himalayan countries prone to earthquakes are not yet prepared to meet all the challenges this natural hazards present.

Read the full journal article titled: Interseismic coupling on the main Himalayan thrust

Victoria Stevens is a PhD graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Double warning time for volcanic lahars

By Robert Jones

Real-time rainfall data can be used to potentially double warning times for rain-triggered lahars on the slopes of Tungurahua Volcano, compared existing ground-based detection methods.

Tungurahua volcano is located in the Eastern Cordillera of the Ecuadorian Andes and its current period of eruptive activity has been ongoing since 1999. This intermittent activity has resulted in the deposition of a lot of loose unconsolidated pyroclastic gravel, dust and ash on the slopes of the volcano.

A recent Tungurahua at night. Source: Dr. Carlos Costales Terán, Wikimedia Commons
A recent Tungurahua eruption at night.
Source: Dr. Carlos Costales Terán, Wikimedia Commons

During heavy rainfall, for which this region is renown, this loose material gets mixed into the rain water flowing off the volcano and results in extremely dangerous rain-triggered lahars, or volcanic mudflows. Think flash floods and giant rivers of mud and rock rolled into one.

The city of Baños lies approximately 8 km north of the summit of the volcano and is a very popular tourist destination, with its population increasing from approximately 18,000 to around 50,000 during holiday periods. The primary road linking Baños with the Pan-American Highway and other provincial cities crosses several lahar-prone drainages of Tungurahua and these flows pose a significant risk to infrastructure within these valleys.

Rain-triggered lahars have not caused any fatalities at Tungurahua but cars have been buried, road crossings inundated and the El Salado Baths (a popular visitor attraction) have nearly been inundated by flows in previous years.

An incoming lahar from mount Tungurahua. Source: IGEPN
An incoming lahar from mount Tungurahua.
Source: IGEPN

The volcano is monitored from the Tungurahua Volcano Observatory (OVT), operated by the Instituto Geofisico, Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN). The primary methods of lahar monitoring are detection by Acoustic Flow Monitors (AFMs), which measure ground vibration as the flow passes and also flow identification by a community-based monitoring system consisting of a network of volunteers known as Vigias.

Analysis of both the rainfall and lahar record between March 2012 and June 2013 indicated that peak rainfall intensity can be a key indicator of a potential lahar occurrence. The peak rainfall intensity during a particularly rainy period is used along with previous knowledge of the amount of moisture already in the landscape to estimate the probability that a lahar will exceed a pre-defined flow size. This method was tested using the July-December 2013 lahar and rainfall records and not only did our probabilities effectively predict the occurrence of lahars, but peak estimated lahar probability was consistently reached prior to lahar detection by the Acoustic Flow Monitor network. This probabilistic analysis produced an average of 24 additional minutes of warning time during the test-period.

Read the full paper at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00445-015-0946-7


Robert Jones is a PhD research student in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.

Here’s an example from Ubinas volcano in neighbouring Peru, of the force and destructive power of lahars.