Earlier this month, South Pacific islanders experienced four major earthquakes within 11 hours. Though there were few injuries and little damage, the quakes came without warning, a terrifying reminder of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami that claimed more than a quarter of a million lives.
With little coordinated information about the deadly forces underlying these natural disasters — and few resources mustered to prevent damage or respond to the inevitable catastrophes — we're in no better position today than we were then to see them coming.
Now a group is hoping to change all that.
Called the Global Earthquake Model or GEM, the non-profit organization of scientists and researchers is well into a five-year project to gather existing knowledge about earthquake-prone areas and the risks involved. GEM will then take those volumes of information and — using a complex software program — create a worldwide picture of the planet's stress-prone areas, the risks to life and structures in vulnerable areas, and the ways to reduce that risk, including better building techniques and emergency preparedness.
In other words, a very comprehensive database of historical information, as well as data on faults and geology, should help predict the likelihood of future earthquakes.
More importantly, the entire model and all the data collected will be freely available to private organizations, individuals, researchers, and state and local governments looking for objective information on which to base their plans. Worried about your community? Check with GEM. Considering buying a new house? Check with GEM.
Ultimately, it's hoped this will save lives, particularly in developing nations where scientific earthquake information is scant or inaccessible or simply too expensive.
Currently, there is no single source for such data, and what is available is limited to particular areas, according to Ross Stein, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-founder of GEM. "Ninety percent of the research and mitigation efforts are conducted in and for the developed countries of the world, but 90 percent of the deaths and damage are suffered by the developing countries of the world," Stein says. The GEM team believes that won't change unless information about the risks of quakes is widely disseminated: "Unless someone is convinced of a risk, they won't do anything about it."
Experts in the field are troubled that some of the world's most densely populated and earthquake-prone areas — the Ganges Plain of northern India and western China, for example — have little information to go on. "Both countries are aggressively building hydroelectric plants and dams to supply power and water to their growing populations and to fuel their economic engines," warns Stein. "Of course, the reservoir water itself becomes a flood danger should an earthquake destroy a dam," he says, noting that a 7.9-magnitude quake last year in western China claimed approximately 70,000 lives. Consequently, GEM is trying to create regional centers in India and China and to garner the support of the local governments and scientists.
Even in areas well informed of the danger, earthquake preparedness is a constant concern. Just last week, 6 million Californians participated in "The Great California Shakeout" earthquake drill, for example. The Shakeout involved not only running for cover but also feigning injuries so that first responders could practice safety procedures. Not coincidentally, last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of San Francisco's 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta quake that killed dozens, brought a section of the Bay Bridge down on commuters and damaged thousands of homes.
To improve the chances of surviving an earthquake, Stein says, "we must engage scientists and engineers in the quake-prone countries of the world, give them state-of-the-art tools and data, and help them build their national models" in order to make it more difficult for governments to dismiss the danger.
GEM currently has dozens of partners and supporters ranging from academic institutions to global insurance companies. Officially, seven countries and five companies are sponsoring the project to the tune of $30 million. Stein estimates the group will need another $5 million to complete the project. Right now, the major work being done by an international group stretching from Berlin to Zürich is focused on creating the software tools to build the seismic hazard model.
"Fundamentally, it's about what kind of damage one can expect," says Charles Scawthorn, of SPA Risk LLC, one of the many contributors of data to GEM. "It's input that then goes into building design, urban planning, what kind of insurance is needed. So first you quantify the problem and then you can quantify what the alternatives are."The ultimate goal is not earthquake prediction — knowing where and when a quake will hit is many years away, say the researchers — but rather to reduce the damage earthquakes cause to homes and business and, more important, to save lives.
"To prevent a Katrina-like disaster we have to have this risk information out there," underscores Scawthorn. "the authorities can then make the right decisions, and if they don't, grassroots pressure can be brought to bear to get them to do the right thing."