New earthquake model could protect people from natural disasters

14 March 2017

Interview with

Crescenzo Petrone, University College London

Six years ago  a tsunami hit Japan killing 15,000 people and triggered a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power station. This was caused by an offshore mega subduction earthquake (where one tectonic plate is forced beneath another), which can cause unpredictable and deadly chains of events. Now, a project called CRUST (Cascading Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Earthquake Shaking and Tsunami) have developed a system which could help us make better predictions about the consequences of undersea earthquakes like the one that hit Japan. Kat Arney spoke to CRUST team member and earthquake specialist Dr Crescenzo Petrone, from University College London to find out about the project...

Crescenzo - CRUST is a joint effort between the University of Bristol, University College London, and also supported by a testing facility at HR Wallingford. It’s mainly looking at developing a computer model for the assessment of a chain of events which are triggered by these subduction earthquake, such as earthquake, tsunami, landslides and series of aftershocks. This is the first time where a unique platform is employed to gather together a lot of different hazards which are particularly modeled on their own, so without an analytic approach.

Kat - So you might just look at an earthquake or a tsunami separately and not bringing them all together?

Crescenzo - Yes. So you might assess the damage on the build environment caused by earthquake only, tsunami only, or landslide only. Whereas this one is capable of getting a unique result out of the study.

Kat - All kinds of disaster basically. So this isn’t a prediction thing; this isn’t red lights flashing, a tsunamis coming, you’ve got to get out of the area. That’s not what we’re talking about here?

Crescenzo - No. This is a tool to be used in peacetime. It’s mainly used to help policymakers to mitigate the risk by employing proper emergency evacuation. Also I mentioned planning, designing buildings against these threats, and the insurance sector in assessing economic losses associated to these kind of events.

Kat - Because we do know now where in the world is susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis. We know where the fault lines are that are cracking the surface of our earth. So you’re saying that this model will enable people in those areas to go OK, what are we at risk of, how should we take appropriate action to defend ourselves?

Crescenzo - Yes, yes, definitely. So policy makers might decide where to place a tsunami evacuation building where all the people should gather in case of tsunami alert that will be triggered. They will decide where to put schools, hospitals and sensitive kinds of buildings. This will interest not only the pacific belt like Japan, New Zealand, California and Chile, but also Europe. As you might recall, in the 18th century a tsunami impacted Lisbon and, more recently, at the beginning of 20th century a tsunami also occurred in Southern Italy. So it’s closer than we might think of.

Kat - How do you get the data to put into this model because in any model you need data from the real world, you put it into the computer, and it kind of says this sort of thing might happen? Tell me about the model and the facility where you’re studying this and getting data?

Crescenzo - Part of the study is looking at how the built environment responds in case of a tsunami and earthquake occurs. In this project we are using a unique, world leading facility at HR Wallingford in the UK, which is able to simulate a tsunami in a flume. In particular, we are looking at what’s the impact of a tsunami on a multiple cluster of buildings, also taking into account the presence of coastal defences, which brutally failed during the Japan event.

Kat - What I’m imagining here is almost like a model village. I’ve been to a model village. Is this what you’ve got, you’ve got basically a model village in an enormous tank of water and you spend all day just smashing it up?

Crescenzo -  Yes, almost. Simply speaking yes, it’s like that. It’s a water tank that pumps some water and sucks some water so the water retrieves from the shore, and then the water inundates the idealised group of buildings which we’ve set up in Wallingford. We assess what’s the force on the building and what’s the influence of the building arrangement on the force acting on these kinds of buildings.

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