Earthquakes are one of the most powerful and destructive natural disasters on our planet. They occur when tectonic plates, which make up the Earth’s crust, shift and release energy, resulting in shaking of the ground. Earthquakes can cause widespread damage to buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, as well as trigger landslides, tsunamis, and other secondary hazards. The economic cost of earthquakes can be significant, with billions of dollars lost in property damage, lost productivity, and other related expenses. In addition to the financial impact, earthquakes can also result in loss of life and severe social and psychological consequences for those affected. As such, understanding the nature of earthquakes and their economic cost is of critical importance to governments, emergency responders, and communities around the world.
The Value of Being Able to Predict Earthquakes
Earthquakes can strike at any time. While it is currently not possible to predict earthquakes with complete accuracy, the value of early earthquake prediction cannot be overstated.
Early earthquake prediction refers to the process of detecting the warning signs of an earthquake before it strikes. This can include monitoring seismic activity, ground deformation, and changes in gas and water levels.
One of the most significant benefits of early earthquake prediction is that it can save lives. When people are given advanced warning, they can evacuate the area before the earthquake hits, reducing the risk of injury and death. This is particularly important in areas that are prone to earthquakes, as people can be prepared and ready to take action at a moment’s notice.
Early earthquake prediction can also help minimize damage to infrastructure and buildings. Early warning can give people time to prepare their homes and buildings and reinforce structures to minimize damage.
How Can Satellites Help With Earthquake Prediction?
Satellites can help predict earthquakes in several ways:
Monitoring changes in the Earth’s surface: Satellites can detect even small changes in the Earth’s surface using techniques such as interferometry. By monitoring the movement of the ground, scientists can identify areas where stress is building up and predict where earthquakes are likely to occur.
Measuring changes in the ionosphere: Earthquakes can cause changes in the ionosphere, the layer of charged particles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Satellites can measure these changes, providing scientists with another way to detect seismic activity.
Studying changes in the magnetic field: Just as earthquakes can cause changes in the ionosphere, they can also affect the Earth’s magnetic field. Satellites equipped with magnetometers can detect these changes, providing another tool for earthquake prediction.
Monitoring volcanic activity: Satellites can also monitor volcanoes and detect changes in their activity, which can be an indicator of impending earthquakes. ESA recently announced an initiative to use their Copernicus satellites to create a global volcano monitoring system.
By combining data from satellites with information from ground-based monitoring stations, seismologists can build a more complete picture of seismic activity and improve their ability to predict earthquakes.
Space technology has already demonstrated that it can provide valuable data and insights into seismic activity. The following subsections provide case studies where space technology has been used to study earthquakes.
GRACE Satellite Mission
The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, which operated from 2002 to 2017, used twin satellites to measure changes in Earth’s gravity field caused by changes in mass distribution, including changes in water and ice storage. Researchers have used GRACE data to study the correlation between changes in groundwater levels and seismic activity. For example, a 2015 study published in the journal Nature Geoscience found that changes in groundwater levels in northern Chile could be used to predict the location of earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.5 or higher.
Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) is a technique that uses radar waves to measure surface deformation with millimeter-level accuracy. InSAR data has been used to study the deformation of the Earth’s crust before and after earthquakes, providing insights into the mechanics of earthquake rupture. For example, a study published in the journal Science in 2016 used InSAR data to study the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal and found that the rupture propagated in a manner that was consistent with the presence of a weakened fault zone.
Global Positioning System (GPS) technology can be used to measure the displacement of the Earth’s crust before and after earthquakes. GPS data can provide information on the geometry and size of fault ruptures, as well as the distribution of aftershocks. For example, a study published in the journal Nature in 2015 used GPS data to study the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan and found that the earthquake was caused by the rupture of a fault that was previously unknown.
The European Space Agency’s Swarm constellation mission, launched in 2013, measures the Earth’s magnetic field with high precision. Researchers have used Swarm data to study the relationship between changes in the magnetic field and seismic activity. For example, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2018 used Swarm data to study the 2016 Amatrice earthquake in Italy and found that changes in the magnetic field occurred several days before the earthquake, suggesting that they may be associated with the build-up of stress in the Earth’s crust.
It is important to note that while space technology can provide valuable data and insights into seismic activity, it is not yet capable of predicting earthquakes with a high degree of accuracy. Earthquake prediction remains a challenging problem that requires further research and development of new technologies.
The value of early earthquake prediction cannot be overstated. By providing advanced warning, lives can be saved, and infrastructure damage can be minimized. While it may never be possible to predict earthquakes with complete accuracy, investing in early earthquake prediction is a worthwhile endeavor that can make a significant difference in the lives of those affected by these destructive natural disasters.