Category Archives: Environmental geology and geohazards

China’s legendary great flood did happen

The Biblical Flood is one of several legendary catastrophes that over the millennia have made their way into popular mythology. Indeed, Baron Georges Cuvier explained his stratigraphy of the Paris Basin and fossil evidence for extinctions of animals as the results of repeated inundations. His opinions and those of other scientists of the catastrophist school reflect the philosophical transition that began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century: curiosity and observation set against medieval dogma. It seems that transition is incomplete as there are still people who seek remains of Noah’s Ark and propose alien beings as the constructors of the huge geoglyphs of the Nazka Desert in Peru. On the other hand, Walter Pitman – one of the pioneers of plate tectonics – and his colleague William Ryan sought a rational explanation for the Flood, based in part on a more detailed description of a flodd in the Near East in one of the oldest written documents, the Epic of Gilgamesh (~2150-1400 BCE). In 1996 they published a hypothesis that such flood legends may have arisen from oral accounts of the flooding of the previously cut-off Black Sea basin through the Bosphorus as global sea level rose about 7600 years ago.

Chinese mythology too contains graphic descriptions of catastrophic flooding in the legend of Emperor Yu, first written down at the start of the first millennium BCE. Rather than being a victim or a survivor of catastrophe, Yu is credited with relieving the aftermath of the supposed flood by instigating ingenious systems of dredging and rechanneling the responsible river, and instigating the start of Chinese civilisation and the Xia Dynasty. Such detail conveys a greater air of veracity than a substantial boat containing male and female representatives of all animal species ending up on top of a mountain once Flood waters subsided! Recent research by Quinglong Wu of the School of Archeology at Peking University, together with other Chinese and US colleagues along the Yellow River has nailed the truth of the legend to events in the headwaters of the Yellow River (Wu, Q. and 15 others 2016. Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty. Science, v. 353, p. 579-582).

Map of the Yellow River

Map of the Yellow River from the Qing Dynasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The team discovered evidence for a huge landslide in a terrace of the Yellow River where it flows through the Jishi Gorge. Probably dislodged by an earthquake, the slide blocked the gorge so that a large lake formed above it. The lake also left sedimentary evidence on the flanks of the gorge, which suggest that it may have been as much as 200 m deep and impounded 12 to 17 km3 of water. Downstream of the gorge sediments of the Guanting Basin contain chaotic sediments characteristic of outburst floods, probably deposited once the landslide dam was breached. 14C dates of charcoal from the outburst flood sediments give a likely age for the massive event of 1922±28 BCE. Astonishingly, remains of three children from a cave near the Yellow River are buried in the flood deposits and provided an age within error of that of the flood: they were victims. Sediments extending to the coast in the North China Plain are the repositories of much of the archaeological evidence for the evolution of Chinese culture along with signs of rates of sedimentation. The definite signs of a catastrophic flood upstream coincides with the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age artefacts in the Yellow River flood plain.

Earthquakes in Nepal

The magnitude 7.8 Gorkha earthquake hit much of the Himalayan state of Nepal on 25 April 2015, to be followed by one of magnitude 7.3 150 km to the east 18 days later. As would have happened in any high-relief area both events triggered a huge number of landslides as well as toppling buildings, killing almost 9000 people and leaving 22 000 injured in the capital Kathmandu and about 30 rural administrative districts. Relief and reconstruction remain hindered 9 months on in many of the smaller villages because they are accessible only by footpaths. Nepal had remained free of devastating earthquakes for almost 6 centuries, highlighting the perils of long quiescence in active plate-boundary areas.

Damage in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the Gorkha earthquake in May 2015 (Credit: CNN)

Damage in Kathmandu, Nepal, after the Gorkha earthquake in May 2015 (Credit: CNN)

The International Charter: Space and Major Disasters consortium of many national space agencies was activated, resulting in one of the largest ever volumes of satellite images ranging from 30 to 1 m resolution to be captured and made freely available for relief direction, analysis and documentation. This allowed more than 7500 volunteers to engage in ‘crowd mapping’ coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to provide logistic support to the Nepal government, UN Agencies and other international organizations who were swiftly responding with humanitarian relief. Most important was the location of damaged areas using ‘before-after’ analysis and assessing possible routes to remote areas. The US NASA and British Geological Survey with Durham University coordinated a multinational effort by geoscientists to document the geological, geophysical and geomorphological factors behind the mass movement of debris in landslides etc that was triggered by the earthquakes, results from which have just appeared (Kargel, J.S. and 63 others 2016. Geomorphic and geological controls of geohazards induced by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Science, v. 351, p. 140 – full text purchase).

The large team mapped 4312 new landslides and inspected almost 500 glacial lakes for damage, only 9 had visible damage but none of them showing signs of outbursts. As any civil engineer might have predicted, landslides were concentrated in areas with slopes exceeding 30° coincided with high ground acceleration due to the shaking effect of earthquakes. Ground acceleration can only be assessed from the actual seismogram records of the earthquakes, though slope angle is easily mapped using existing digital elevation data (e.g. SRTM). It should be possible to model landslide susceptibility to some extent over large areas by simulation of ground shaking based on various combinations of seismic magnitude and epicenter depth modulated by maps of bedrock and colluvium on valley sides as well as from after-the-event surveys. The main control over distribution of landslides seems to have been the actual fault mechanism involved in the earthquake, assessed from satellite radar interferometry, with the greatest number and density being on the downthrow side (up to 0.82 m surface drop): the uplifted area (up to 1.13 m) had barely any debris movements. Damage lies above deep zones where brittle deformation probably takes place leading to sudden discrete faults, but is less widespread above deep zones of plastic deformation.

The geoscientific information gleaned from the Gorkha earthquake’s effects will no doubt help in assessing risky areas elsewhere in the Himalayan region. Yet so too will steady lithological and structural mapping of this still poorly understood and largely remote area. As regards the number of lives saved, one has to bear in mind that few people buried by landslides and collapsed buildings survive longer than a few days. It seems that rapid response by geospatial data analysts to the logistics of relief and escape has more chance of positive humanitarian outcomes.

In the same issue of Science appears another article on Nepalese seismicity, but events of the 12th to 14th centuries CE (Schwanghart, W. and 10 others 2016. Repeated catastrophic valley infill following medieval earthquakes in the Nepal Himalaya. Science, v. 351, p. 147-150). As the title suggests, this relates to recent geology beneath a valley floor in which Nepal’s second city Pokhara is located. It lies immediately to the south of the 8000 m Annapurna massif, about 50 km west of the Gorkha epicentre. Sections through the upper valley sediments reveal successive debris accumulations on scales that dwarf those moved in the 2015 landslides. Dating (14C) of interlayered organic materials match three recorded earthquakes in 1100, 1255 and 1344 CE, each estimated to have been of magnitude 8 or above. The debris is dominated by carbonate rocks that probably came from the Annapurna massif some 60 km distant. They contain evidence of extreme pulverisation and occur in a series of interbeds some fine others dominated by clasts. The likelihood is that these are evidence of mass movement of a more extreme category than landslides and rockfalls: catastrophic debris flows or rock-ice avalanches involving, in total, 4 to 5 km3 of material.

Seismic menace of the Sumatra plate boundary

More than a decade after the 26 December 2004 Great Aceh Earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunamis that devastating experience and four more lesser seismic events (> 7.8 Magnitude) have show a stepwise shift in activity to the SE along the Sumatran plate boundary. It seems that stresses along the huge thrust system associated with subduction of the Indo-Australian Plate that had built up over 200 years of little seismicity are becoming unlocked from sector to sector along the Sumatran coast. Areas further to the SE are therefore at risk from both major earthquakes and tsunamis. A seismic warning system now operates in the Indian Ocean, but the effectiveness of communications to potential victims has been questioned since its installation. However, increasing sophistication of geophysical data and modelling allows likely zones at high risk to be assessed.

Recent Great Earthquakes in different segments of the Sumatra plate margin (credit: Tectonics Observatory, California Institute of Technology http://www.tectonics.caltech.edu/outreach/highlights/sumatra/why.html

Recent Great Earthquakes in different segments of the Sumatra plate margin (credit: Tectonics Observatory, California Institute of Technology http://www.tectonics.caltech.edu/outreach/highlights/sumatra/why.html

One segment is known to have experienced giant earthquakes in 1797 and 1833 but none since then. What is known as the Mentawai seismic gap lies between two other segments in which large earthquakes have occurred in the 21st century: it is feared that gap will eventually be filled by another devastating event. Geophysicists from the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have published a high-resolution seismic reflection survey showing the subduction zone beneath the Mentawai seismic gap (Kuncoro, A.K. et al. 2015. Tsunamigenic potential due to frontal rupturing in the Sumatra locked zone. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 432, p. 311-322). It shows that that the upper part of the zone, the accretionary wedge, is laced with small thrust-bounded ‘pop-ups’. The base of the accretionary wedge shows a series of small seaward thrusts above the subduction surface itself forming ‘piggyback’ or duplex structures.

Seismic reflection profile across part of the Sumatra plate boundary, showing structures produced by past seismicity. (credit: Kuncoro et al. 2015, Figure 3b)

Seismic reflection profile across part of the Sumatra plate boundary, showing structures produced by past seismicity. (credit: Kuncoro et al. 2015, Figure 3b)

The authors model the mechanisms that probably produced these intricate structures. This shows that the inactive parts of the plate margin have probably locked in stresses equivalent to of the order of 10 m of horizontal displacement formed by the average 5 to 6 cm of annual subduction of the Indo-Australian Plate over the two centuries since the last major earthquakes. Reactivation of the local structures by release of this strain would distribute it by horizontal movements of between 5.5 to 9.2 m and related 2 to 6.6 m vertical displacement in the pop-ups. That may suddenly push up the seafloor substantially during a major earthquake, thereby producing tsunamis. Whether or not this is a special feature of the Sumatra plate boundary that makes it unusually prone to tsunami production is not certain: such highly resolving seismic profiles need to be conducted over all major subduction zones to resolve that issue. What does emerge from the study is that a repeat of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis is a distinct possibility, sooner rather than later.

Roman concrete restrains magma

Four million people in and around the Italian city of Naples on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea have always lived under a double threat of natural disaster. The one that immediately springs to most people’s mind is the huge volcano Vesuvius that looms over its eastern suburbs, for this was the source of the incandescent pyroclastic flow that overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE. Less familiar outside Italy is a cluster of elliptical volcanic features directly to the west of the city: Campi Flegrei or the Phlegraean Fields. In fact the cluster is part of a vast, dormant caldera, half of which lies beneath the sea centred on the ancient Roman port of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli). This volcanic collapse structure is about 10 km across; about as large as Vesuvius. Campi Flegrei is famous for its sulfur-rich fumaroles including the mythical crater home of Vulcan the god of fire, Solfatara.

The Bay of Naples with Vesuvius to the east of the city and Campi Flegrei to the west. (credit: Google Earth)

The Bay of Naples with Vesuvius to the east of the city and Campi Flegrei to the west. (credit: Google Earth)

Between 1970 and 1984 the ground around Pozzuoli rose more than 2 metres, which may be evidence that the deep seated magma chamber is inflating. Fears that this might presage an eruption in the near future stems from a curious feature affecting archaeological remains, such as upright pillars in the harbour area of Pozzuoli. At many different levels the stonework is pockmarked by curious holes that are the fossil borings of marine molluscs: at some stage the feet of the pillars descended below sea level. Together with historic records since the Roman era these borings help to establish the local ups and downs of the surface over the last two millennia in considerable detail. From a high of 4 m above sea level when the pillars were erected 194 BCE they slowly subsided to reach sea level around 300 CE when Puteoli ceased to be an important harbour and 4 metres below that around 900 CE. For the last millennium they have slowly risen until in 1538 more than 4 metres of inflation took place very rapidly. That was immediately followed by a small eruption of about 0.02 km3 of magma at Mount Nuovo, to the northeast of another recent crater now occupied by a lake: hence the fear surrounding the uplift in 1970-84. Campi Flegrei has a history of eruptions going back 40 thousand years, including two in the ‘super volcano’ category of 200 and 40 km3 that blanketed vast areas in pyroclastic ash.

One tantalising aspect of the ground inflation and deflation is that each cycle lasts of the order of a thousand years. Another seems to be that magma breaks to the surface very rapidly after a long period of inflation, as if whatever was keeping the magma chamber in a metastable state failed in a brittle fashion. Tiziana Vanorio and Waruntorn Kanitpanyacharoen of Stanford and Chulalonkorn universities in the US and Thailand have come up with a possible reason for such gradual crustal warping in volcanic areas and long-delayed eruption, for which Campi Flegrei is a model case (in fact the oscillations there are unsurpassed). Such long-term bending of the crust suggests abnormally strong rock near the surface. The co-workers analysed borehole cores that penetrated to the depth of small shallow earthquakes – in the metamorphic basement of the area – and found that the zone above the seismically active layer is not only stronger than the basement, but closely resembles a construction material to which Roman architecture owes its longevity (Vanorio, T. & Kanitpanyacharoen, W. 2015. Rock physics of fibrous rocks akin to Roman concrete explains uplifts at Campi Flegrei Caldera. Science, v. 349, p. 617-621).

Deutsch: Pozzuoli, Macellum

Mollusc-bored pillars in the Macellum (indoor market) of Pozzuoli (credit: Wikipedia)

Roman masons discovered that by mixing young, loose volcanic ash with lime mortar (calcium hydroxide) produced a strong concrete when cured. Specifically, the invention of concrete took place at Pozzuoli itself, using volcanic ash from Campi Flegrei and the product was known as pozzolana. Young ash from an explosive volcano is mainly shards of anhydrous silicate glass, which quickly react with water and calcium hydroxide to produce fibres of hydrous calc-silicate minerals, almost as in conventional cement curing, but without the need for heating limestone and clay to very high temperatures. The strength of pozzolano enabled Roman architects to build the great dome of the Pantheon in Rome, still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Moreover, the speed with which it sets by exothermic reactions enables its use below sea level. Vanorio and Kanitpanyacharoen found that the strong upper zone beneath Campi Flegrei is almost identical to pozzolano, and suggest that it formed as a result of calcium-rich hydrothermal fluids percolating through young pyroclastic rocks. The calcium derives from metamorphic basement rich in calc-silicate layers through which hot groundwater is driven as a result of heat from the underlying magma chamber. It seems the Campi Flegrei caldera has built its own containing dome. But that is perhaps a mixed blessing: the 1970-84 inflation seems now to be deflating and the flexible carapace may make using ground movements as means of predicting eruptions unreliable.

Intérieur du panteon à Rome

Interior view of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome (credit: Wikipedia)

Are coral islands doomed by global warming?

Among the most voluble and persistent advocates of CO2 emissions reduction are representatives of islands in the tropics that are built entirely of reef coral. All the habitable land on them reaches only a few metres above high-tide level, so naturally they have more cause to worry about global warming and sea-level rise than most of us. Towns and villages on some atolls do seem to be more regularly inundated than they once were. So a group of scientists from New Zealand and Australia set out to check if there have been losses of land on one Pacific atoll, Funafuti, during the century since tidal observatories first recorded an average 1.7 mm annual rise in global sea level and a faster rate (~3 mm a-1) since 1993 (Kench, P.S. et al. 2015. Coral islands defy sea-level rise over the past century: Records from a central Pacific atoll. Geology, v. 43, p.515-518).

English: Funafuti (Tuvalu) from space Magyar: ...

Funafuti atoll (Tuvalu) from space (credit: Wikipedia)

Funafuti atoll comprises 32 islands that make up its rim, with a range of sizes, elevations, sediment build-ups and human modifications. The atoll was first accurately surveyed at the end of the 19th century, has aerial photographic cover from 1943, 1971 and 1984 and high-resolution satellite image coverage from 2005 and 2014, so this is adequate to check whether or not sea-level rise has affected the available area and shape of the habitable zone. It appears that there has been no increase in erosion over the 20th century and rather than any loss of land there has been a net gain of over 7%. The team concludes that coral reefs and islands derived from their remains and debris are able to adjust their size, shape and position to keep pace with sea level and with the effects of storms.

English: Looking west from a beach on Fongafal...

Beach on Fongafale Islet part of Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. (credit: Wikipedia)

This is an observation of just one small community in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, so is unlikely to reassure islanders elsewhere who live very close to sea level and are anxious. It is a finding that bears out longer-term evidence that atolls remained stable during the major sea-level changes of the post-glacial period until about 7 thousand years ago when land glaciers stabilised. Since coral grows at a surprisingly rapid rate, that growth and the local redistribution of debris released by wave action keep pace with sea-level change; at least that taking place at rates up to 3 mm per year. But the study leaves out another threat from global warming. Corals everywhere are starting to show signs of ill thrift, partly resulting from increasing acidity of seawater as more CO2 dissolved in it and partly from increases in sea-surface temperature, as well a host of other implicated factors. This manifests itself in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching that may presage die-off. Should coral productivity decrease in the Pacific island states then the material balance shifts to land loss and sea level will begin an irresistible threat.

Earthquake hazard news

Assessments of seismic risk have relied until recently on records of destructive earthquakes going back centuries and their relationship to tectonic features, mainly active faults. They usually predict up to 50 years ahead. The US Geological Survey has now shifted focus to very recent records mainly of small to medium tremors, some of which have appeared in what are tectonically stable areas as well as the background seismicity in tectonically restless regions. This enables the short-term risk (around one year) to be examined. To the scientists’ surprise, the new modelling completely changes regional maps of seismic risk. The probabilities in the short-term of potentially dangerous ground movements in 17 oil- and gas-rich areas rival those in areas threatened by continual, tectonic jostling, such as California. The new ‘hot spots’ relate to industrial activity, primarily the disposal of wastewater from petroleum operations by pumping it into deep aquifers.

USGS map highlighting short-term earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced earthquakes (source: US Geological Survey)

USGS map highlighting short-term earthquake risk zones. Blue boxes indicate areas with induced earthquakes (source: US Geological Survey)

Fluid injection increases hydrostatic pressure in aquifers and also in the spaces associated with once inactive fault and fracture systems. All parts of the crust are stressed to some extent but the presence of fluids and over-pressuring increases the tendency for rock failure. While anti-fracking campaigners have focussed partly on seismic risk – fracking has caused tremors around magnitudes 2 to 3 – the process is a rapid one-off injection involving small fluid volumes compared with petroleum waste-water disposal. All petroleum production carries water as well as oil and gas to wellheads. Coming from great depth it is formation water held in pores since sedimentary deposition, which is environmentally damaging because of its high content of dissolved salts and elevated temperature. Environmental protection demands that disposal must return it to depth.

The main worry is that waste water disposal might trigger movements with magnitudes up to 7.0: in 2011 a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit a town in oil-producing Oklahoma and damaged many buildings. Currently, US building regulations rely on earthquake risk maps that consider a 50-year timescale, but they take little account of industrially induced seismicity. So the new data is likely to cause quite a stir. These are changing times, however, as the oil price fluctuates wildly. So production may well shift from field to field seeking sustainable rates of profit, and induced seismicity may well change as a result.

None of these areas are likely to experience the horrors of the 25 April 2015 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Nepal. However, it also occurred in an area expected to be relatively stable compared with the rest of the Himalayan region. The only previous major tremor there was recorded in the 14th century. This supposedly ‘low-risk’ area overlies a zone in which small tremors or microearthquakes occur all the time. Such zones – and this one extends along much of the length of the Himalaya – seem to mark where fault depths are large enough for displacements to take place continually by plastic flow, thereby relieving stresses. Most of the large earthquakes have taken place south of the microseismic zone where the shallow parts of the Indian plate are brittle and have become locked. The recent event is raising concerns that it is a precursor of further large earthquakes in Nepal. Its capital Kathmandu is especially susceptible as it is partly founded on lake sediments that easily liquefy.

Note added: 13 May 2015. Nepal suffered another major shock (magnitude 7.3) on 12 May in the vicinity of Mount Everest. It too seems to have occurred in the zone of microearthquakes formerly thought to mark a zone where the crust fails continually bu plastic deformation thereby relieving stresses. Kathmandu was this time at the edge of the shake zone

A tsunami and NW European Mesolithic settlements

About 8.2 ka ago sediments on the steep continental edge of the North and Norwegian Seas slid onto the abyssal plain of the North Atlantic. This huge mass displacement triggered a tsunami whose effects manifest themselves in sand inundations at the heads of inlets and fjords along the Norwegian and eastern Scottish coasts that reach up to 10 m above current sea level. At that time actual sea level was probably 10 m lower than at present as active melting of the last glacial ice sheets was still underway: the waves may have reached 20-30 m above the 8.2 ka sea level. So powerful were the tsunami waves in the constricted North Sea that they may have separated the British Isles from the European mainland by inundating Doggerland, the low-lying riverine plain that joined them before global sea level rose above their elevation at around the same time. Fishing vessels plying the sandbanks of the southern North Sea often trawl-up well preserved remains of land mammals and even human tools: almost certainly Doggerland was prime hunting territory during the Mesolithic, as well as an easily traversed link to the then British Peninsula. Mesolithic settlements close by tsunami deposits are known from Inverness in Scotland and Dysvikja north of Bergen in Norway and individual Mesolithic dwellings occur on the Northumberland coast. The tsunami must have had some effect on Mesolithic hunter gatherers who had migrated into a game-rich habitat. The question is: How devastating was it.

English: Maelmin - reconstruction of Mesolithi...

Reconstruction of Mesolithic hut based on evidence from two archaeological sites in Northumberland, UK. (credit: Lisa Jarvis; see http://www.maelmin.org.uk/index.html )

Hunter gatherers move seasonally with favoured game species, often returning to semi-permanent settlements for the least fruitful late-autumn to early spring season. The dominant prey animals, red deer and reindeer also tend to migrate to the hills in summer, partly to escape blood-feeding insects, returning to warmer, lower elevations for the winter. If that movement pattern dominated Mesolithic populations then the effects of the tsunami would have been most destructive in late-autumn to early spring. During warmer seasons, people may not even have noticed its effects although coastal habitations and boats may have been destroyed.

Splendid Feather Moss, Step Moss, Stair Step Moss

Stair-step moss (credit: Wikipedia)

Norwegian scientists Knut Rydgren and Stein Bondevik from Sogn og Fjordane University College, Sognda devised a clever means of working out the tsunami’s timing from mosses preserved in the sand inundations that added to near-shore marine sediments. (Rydgren, K. & Bondevik, S. 2015. Most growth patterns and timing of human exposure to a Mesolithic tsunami in the North Atlantic. Geology, v. 43, p. 111-114). Well-preserved stems of stair-step moss Hylocomium splendens still containing green chlorophyll occur, along with ripped up fragments of peat and soil, near the top of the tsunami deposit which has been uplifted by post-glacial isostatic uplift to form a bog. This moss grows shoots annually, the main growth spurt being at the end of the summer-early autumn growing season. Nineteen preserved samples preserved such new shoots that were as long as or longer than the preceding year’s shoots. This suggests that they were torn up by the tsunami while still alive towards the end of the growing season, around late-October. All around the North Sea Mesolithic people could have been returning from warm season hunting trips to sea-shore winter camps, only to have their dwellings, boats and food stores devastated, if indeed they survived such a terrifying event.

Judging earthquake risk

The early 21st century seems to have been plagued by very powerful earthquakes: 217 greater than Magnitude 7.0; 19 > Magnitude 8.0 and 2 >Magnitude 9.0. Although some lesser seismic events kill, those above M 7.0 have a far greater potential for fatal consequences. Over 700 thousand people have died from their effects: ~20 000 in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake (M 7.7); ~29 000 in 2003 Bam earthquake (M 6.6); ~250 000 in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that stemmed from a M 9.1 earthquake off western Sumatra; ~95 000 in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (M7.6); ~87 000 in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (M 7.9); up to 316 000 in the 2010 Haiti earthquake (M 7.0); ~20 000 in the 2011 tsunami that hit NE Japan from the M 9.0 Tohoku earthquake. The 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis spelled out the far-reaching risk to populated coastal areas that face oceans prone to seismicity or large coastal landslips, but also the need for warning systems: tsunamis travel far more slowly than seismic waves and , except for directly adjacent areas, there is good chance of escape given a timely alert. Yet, historically http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/most_destructive.php, deadly risk is most often posed by earthquakes that occur beneath densely populated continental crust. Note that the most publicised earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906 (at M 7.8) that lies on the world’s best-known fault, the San Andreas, caused between 700 and 3000 fatalities, a sizable proportion of which resulted from the subsequent fire. For continental earthquakes the biggest factor in deadly risk, outside of population density, is that of building standards.

English: A poor neighbourhood shows the damage...

A poor neighbourhood in Port au Prince, Haiti following the 2010 earthquake measuring >7 on the Richter scale. (credit: Wikipedia)

It barely needs stating that earthquakes are due to movement on faults, and these can leave distinct signs at or near to the surface, such as scarps, offsets of linear features such as roads, and broad rises or falls in the land surface. However, if they are due to faulting that does not break the surface – so-called ‘blind’ faults – very little record is left for geologists to analyse. But if it is possible to see actual breaks and shifts exposed by shallow excavations through geologically young materials, as in road cuts or trenches, then it is possible to work out an actual history of movements and their dimensions. It has also become increasingly possible to date the movements precisely using radiometric or luminescence means: a key element in establishing seismic risk is the historic frequency of events on active faults. Some of the most dangerous active faults are those at mountain fronts, such as the Himalaya and the American cordilleras, which often take the form of surface-breaking thrusts that are relative easy to analyse, although little work has been done to date. A notable study is on the West Andean Thrust that breaks cover east of Chile’s capital Santiago with a population of around 6 million (Vargas, G. Et al. 2014. Probing large intraplate earthquakes at the west flank of the Andes. Geology, v. 42, p. 1083-1086). This fault forms a prominent series of scarps in Santiago’s eastern suburbs, but for most of its length along the Andean Front it is ‘blind’. The last highly destructive on-shore earthquake in western South America was due to thrust movement that devastated the western Argentinean city of Mendoza in 1861. But the potential for large intraplate earthquakes is high along the entire west flank of the Andes.

Vargas and colleagues from France and the US excavated a 5 m deep trench through alluvium and colluvium over a distance of 25 m across one of the scarps associated with the San Ramon Thrust. They found excellent evidence of metre-sized displacement of some prominent units within the young sediments, sufficient to detect the effects of two distinct, major earthquakes, each producing horizontal shifts of up to 5 m. Individual sediment strata were dateable using radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. The earlier displacement occurred at around 17-19 ka and the second at about 8 ka. Various methods of estimation of the likely earthquake magnitudes of the displacements yielded values of about M 7.2 to 7.5 for both. That is quite sufficient for devastation of now nearby Santiago and, worryingly, another movement may be likely in the foreseeable future.

A supervolcano’s plumbing system

What was the most devastating natural disaster ever to face humans? It would be tempting to suggest the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, but that is because most people remember it with horror. In fact the worst the Earth ever flung at us was much further back in our history and left a huge spike of sulfates in the Greenland icecap at around 73 thousand years ago. This relic of volcanic aerosols that had blasted into the stratosphere was tracked back to a 100 by 30 km caldera in Sumatra now occupied by a lake (Lake Toba) that is 500 m deep in places and almost filled by a slightly off-centre island. The eruption explosively ejected 2800 cubic kilometres of magma, of which an estimated 800 km3 fell as ash across a wide swath of the tropics westwards of Sumatra at least as far as Arabia and East Africa; the line of march taken by anatomically modern humans migrating from Africa. In India and Malaysia the Toba ash layer reaches 5-10 m thickness and probably occurs undetected as a thin layer across the entire tropics. Around 1010 tonnes of sulfuric acid belched out, some to enter and linger in the stratosphere, which is estimated to have caused an average decrease in average global temperatures of 3.0 to 3.5 °C for several years. Studies of human mtDNA hint at a genetic bottleneck around the time of Toba’s eruption and a large decrease, perhaps as much as 60%, in the global population of Homo sapiens. But humans survived or quickly filled devastated land in India, where stone tools are found both below and just above the Toba ash layer.

Landsat image of Lake Toba, the largest volcan...

Landsat image (120 km across) of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic crater lake in the world. (credit: Wikipedia)

The largest volcanic eruption in the last 26 Ma, there can be little doubt that no other natural catastrophe had as large an influence on humanity as did Toba. Of course, slower processes such as climate change and ups and downs of sea level lay behind the repeated spread of humans out of Africa and probably their evolution as a whole. The drama of the Toba event has drawn attention to the massive risk posed by supervolcanoes in general, such as that centred on Yellowstone in the NW US, which show signs of activity 640 ka after its last major explosive event. Toba certainly is not dead, for its peculiar island of Samosir has been uplifted steadily since the eruption by about 450 m, probably due to influx of magma deep beneath the surface, and experiences shallow earthquakes. What lies in the guts of supervolcanoes is literally a hot topic and a new 3-D imaging method has been applied to Toba.

English: Batak village on Samosir island, Lake...

Traditional village on Samosir island, Lake Toba. (credit: Wikipedia)

Seismic tomography that uses background or ambient seismic noise has become a powerful technique for studying the crust and lithosphere when small-amplitude short-wavelength Rayleigh and Love surface waves are monitored to pick up subsurface reflecting bodies and measure variation in wave speed with depth. The greater the density of seismometers deployed, the finer the resolution of deep crustal features and 40 such detectors are in place around Lake Toba. A team of Russian, French and German geophysicists have reported new results bearing on how magma may be accumulating beneath the vast caldera (Jaxibulatov, K. et al. 2014. A large magmatic sill complex beneath the Toba caldera. Science, v. 346, p. 617-619). Down to about 7 km the tomography has picked up a structurally homogeneous low-speed zone directly beneath Samosir Island that the authors attribute to the 73 ka explosive eruption. Beneath that several magma sills appear to dominate the sub-caldera crust, possibly responsible for the post eruption uplift within the caldera: the precursor to a layered intrusive body and each an increment towards a further huge eruption.

Interpretation of seismic tomography cross section of Toba. Greens to reds increasingly negative shear speed anomaly. Showing magma sills in lower crust and 74 ka damage zone above 7 km. (credit: Jaxibulatov et al. 2014

Interpretation of seismic tomography cross section of Toba. Greens to reds increasingly negative shear speed anomaly. Showing magma sills in lower crust and 74 ka damage zone above 7 km. (credit: Jaxibulatov et al. 2014

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September’s picture: Iceland eruption

MoreHolurThis month’s stunning image from Earth Science Picture of the Day, taken on 8 September this year is of Iceland’s biggest fissure eruption (video clip) since 1875, in the Holuhraun lava field, which began on 31 August this year. The flow is about to meet the Jokulsa a Fjollum, a large river flowing from Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajokull. At the time of writing (29 September) lava is flowing along the river bed at around 1 km each day. So far, the flow has spread over 44 square kilometres, and risks blocking the Jokulsa a Fjollum where it flows through a narrow channel bounded by older lava flows. If that happens the river will form a substantial lake until it is able to flow over and erode the bedrock, and will also leave one of the country’s spectacular waterfalls (Sellfoss) dry.

Aerial View of Jökulsá á Fjöllum

Aerial View of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland, downstream of Holuhraun (credit: Wikipedia)

The fissure is connected to the large Bárðarbunga stratovolcano that lies beneath Vatnajokull, which is currently showing signs of subsidence, at about 40 cm each day, and seismicity. There are concerns that this activity may presage an eruption there which may melt large volumes of ice and perhaps release a flood or jökulhlaup from beneath the icecap. Such a flood would likely follow the course of the Jokulsa a Fjollum river.