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GeoTalk: A smart way to map earthquake impact

GeoTalk: A smart way to map earthquake impact

Last week at the 2016 General Assembly Sara, one of the EGU’s press assistants, had the opportunity to speak to Koen Van Noten about his research into how crowdsourcing can be used to find out more about where earthquakes have the biggest impact at the surface.

Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself?

I did a PhD in structural geology at KULeuven and, after I finished, I started to work at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. What I do now is try to understand when people feel an earthquake, why they can feel it, how far away from the source they can feel it, if local geology affects the way people feel it and what the dynamics behind it all are.

How do you gather this information?

People can go online and fill in a ‘Did You Feel It?’ questionnaire about their experience. In the US it’s well organised because the USGS manages this system in whole of the US. In Europe we have so many institutions, so many countries, so many languages that almost every nation has its own questionnaire and sometimes there are many inquiries in only one country. This is good locally because information about a local earthquake is provided in the language of that country, but if you have a larger one that crosses all the borders of different countries then you have a problem. Earthquakes don’t stop at political borders; you have to somehow merge all the enquiries. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

European institutes that provide an online "Did You Feel the Earthquake?" inquiry. (Credit: Koen Van Noten)

European institutes that provide an online “Did You Feel the Earthquake?” inquiry. (Credit: Koen Van Noten)

There are lots of these databases around the world, how do you combine them to create something meaningful?

You first have to ask the different institutions if you can use their datasets, that’s crucial – am I allowed to work on it? And then find a method to merge all this information so that you can do science with it.

You have institutions that capture global data and also local networks. They have slightly different questions but the science behind them is very similar. The questions are quite specific, for instance “were you in a moving vehicle?” If you answer yes then of course the intensity of the earthquake has to be larger than one felt by somebody who was just standing outside doing nothing and barely felt the earthquake. You can work out that the first guy was really close to the epicentre and the other guy was probably very far, or that the earthquake wasn’t very big.

Usually intensities are shown in community maps. To merge all answers of all institutes, I avoid the inhomogeneous community maps. Instead I use 100 km2 grid cell maps and assign an intensity to every grid cell.. This makes the felt effect easy to read and allows you to plot data without giving away personal details of any people that responded. Institutes do not always provide a detailed location, but in a grid cell the precise location doesn’t matter. It’s a solution to the problem of merging databases within Europe and also globally.

Underlying geology can have a huge impact on how an earthquake is felt.  Credit: Koen Van Noten.

Underlying geology can have a huge impact on how an earthquake is felt. 2011 Goch ML 4.3 earthquake.  Credit: Koen Van Noten.

What information can you gain from using these devices?

If you make this graph for a few earthquakes, you can map the decay in shaking intensity in a certain region. I’m trying to understand how the local geology affects these kinds of maps. Somebody living on thick pile of sands, several kilometres above the hypocentre, won’t feel it because the sands will attenuate the earthquake. They are safe from it. However, if they’re directly on the bedrock, but further from the epicentre, they may still feel it because the seismic waves propagate fast through bedrock and aren’t attenuated.

What’s more, you can compare recent earthquakes with ones that happened 200 years ago at the same place. Historical seismologists map earthquake effects that happened years ago from a time when no instrumentation existed, purely based on old personal reports and journal papers. Of course the amount of data points isn’t as dense as now, but even that works.

Can questionnaires be used as a substitute for more advanced methods in areas that are poorly monitored?

Every person is a seismometer. In poorly instrumented regions it’s the perfect way to map an earthquake. The only thing it depends on is population density. For Europe it’s fine, you have a lot of cities, but you can have problems in places that aren’t so densely populated.

Can you use your method to disseminate information as well as gather it, say for education?

The more answers you get, the better the map will be. Intensity maps are easier to understand by communities and the media because they show the distribution of how people felt it, rather than a seismogram, which can be difficult to interpret.

What advice would you give to another researcher wanting to use crowd-sourced information in their research?

First get the word out. Because it’s crowd-sourced, they need to be warned that it does exist. Test your system before you go online, make sure you know what’s out there first and collaborate. Collaborating across borders is the most important thing to do.

Interview by Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant and PhD student at Plymouth University.

Koen presented his work at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. Find out more about it here.

Imaggeo on Mondays: a big thank you from the EGU

Outside EGU General Assembly 2016. Credit: Kai Boggild/EGU (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The past week in Vienna was a busy one! Hordes of Earth, ocean and planetary scientists came together to present, share and discuss their most recent scientific findings at the 2016 General Assembly.

The conference was a great success, with over 4800 oral and 10300 poster presentations, as well as close to a 1000 PICO presentations too! Participants at the conference could pick talks and posters from a staggering selection of over 600 scientific sessions, as well as in excess of 300 side events. The programme in 2016 was indeed rich and varied! Helping participants choose from the vast selection of science on offer, 15,000 copies of EGU Today were distributed throughout the week.

The conference was attended by 13,650 scientists from 109 countries, of which 25% were students and 53% early career scientists (under the age of 35 years). There was also a keen media presence and reporting, and thousands of visits to the webstreams as well as to GeoLog.

We thank all of you very much for your attendance and your active contribution to this great event.

We look forward to seeing you all next year! The EGU General Assembly is back from 23–28 April 2017 in Vienna, Austria.

At the Assembly: Friday highlights

At the Assembly: Friday highlights

The conference is coming to a close and there’s still an abundance of great sessions to attend! Here’s our guide to getting the most out of the conference on its final day. Boost this information with features from EGU Today, the daily newsletter of the General Assembly – pick up a paper copy at the ACV entrance or download it here.

The final day of the conference kicks off with the last Union Session (US3) dedicated to discuss possible avenues of progress towards a commonly applicable framework for model building and application. Talks begin at 08:30 in Room B.

If you’ve been inspired to take a more active role in the organisation of the conference, why not head to the short course: How to convene a session at EGU 2017, starting at 10:30 in Room -2.85

Be sure to attend today’s Alexander von Humboldt Medal Lecture by Jean W.A. Poesen, who will be questioning whether research on soil erosion hazard and mitigation in the Global South is still needed (ML1: 12:15–13:15 / Room E1).

The final Great Debate of the week will address on of the biggest questions in the geosciences: Did plate tectonics start in the PaleoArchean? With conflicting schools of thought, it promises to be a lively and informative debate. Be sure to go along and share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #EGU16GDB! (GDB5: 13:30 -15:00 /Room G1)

It’s your last chance to make the most of the networking opportunities at the General Assembly, so get on down to the poster halls and strike up a conversation. If you’re in the queue for coffee, find out what the person ahead is investigating – you never know when you might start building the next exciting collaboration! Here are some of today’s scientific highlights:

 'Mirror Mirror in the sea...' . Credit: Mario Hoppmann (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu). A polar bear is testing the strength of thin sea ice. Polar bears and their interaction with the cryosphere are a prime example of how the biosphere is able to adapt to an "Active Planet". They are also a prime example of how the anthropogenic influence on Earth's climate system endangers other lifeforms.

‘Mirror Mirror in the sea…’ . Credit: Mario Hoppmann (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu). A polar bear is testing the strength of thin sea ice. Polar bears and their interaction with the cryosphere are a prime example of how the biosphere is able to adapt to an “Active Planet”. They are also a prime example of how the anthropogenic influence on Earth’s climate system endangers other lifeforms.

Today we also announce the results of the EGU Photo Contest and the Communicate Your Science Video Competition. Head over to the EGU Booth at 12:15 to find out who the winners are.

What have you thought of the Assembly this week? Let us know at www.egu2016.eu/feedback and help make EGU 2017 even better.

We hope you’ve had a wonderful week and look forward to seeing you in 2017! Join us on this adventure in Vienna next year, 23-28 April 2017!

Counting the cost of natural disasters

Counting the cost of natural disasters

Often, in the news, we are used to seeing disaster statistics reported as isolated figures, placed into context by the tragic human cost of floods, earthquakes and drought. The recent Ecuadorian earthquake that occurred on Saturday the 16th April, for example, was described as having an estimated economic cost of $820 million, which could rise as the scale of the disaster is revealed. But beyond the shocking levels of destruction that these numbers can represent, can they teach us anything of humanity’s resilience to natural disasters?

Well, according to Dr James Daniell, a civil/structural engineer and geophysicist from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, by combining the data for disasters reported between 1900 and 2015, interesting trends in vulnerability across the globe are revealed. Dr Daniell, who presented his results to the European Geoscience Union this week, along with colleagues from KIT and the General Sir John Monash Foundation, Australia, has discovered that up to $7 trillion worth of economic losses have occurred globally since 1900. This value was revealed by comparing economic costs for various natural disasters including floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms and drought using a collection of socio-economic indicators called the CATDAT Damaging Natural Disaster database.

Of this $7 trillion, the majority of financial costs have been from flooding disasters, which accounted for just over a third of losses. Since the 1960’s, however, this trend has started to shift, with storms and storm surges accounting for 30% of the losses. Storm and flooding damages have presented an interesting challenge for Dr Daniell and his team, as it can be difficult to separate the financial costs of these similar and often connected disasters. Luckily, the database has amassed over 30,000 sources in over 90 languages to attempt to clarify the various sources of economic loss.

Deaths due to natural disasters since 1900 (Credit: James Daniell, KIT)

Deaths due to natural disasters since 1900 (Credit: James Daniell, KIT)

As well as looking at trends over the last 115 years, by examining the relationships between disasters, socio-economic losses and vulnerability, Dr Daniell has come to a surprising realisation. Although the total number of deaths in disasters appears to be increasing, in comparison with the total global population the percentage of deaths is actually in decline, and so too is the associated economic cost for society.

“Here there is a clear trend, that many (but not all) countries are protecting themselves better against disasters by building better, and therefore and are reducing their risk of high losses.”

Dr Daniell also says that his data highlights the noticeably positive impact that flood prevention infrastructure, education and communication is having on resilience to flooding.

“Over the entire time period, half of people died due to flood. However, with better planning, warnings and preventive measures, the death rate due to floods is significantly decreasing.”

An additional benefit of this database is the rapid assessment of the potential economic consequences for future natural disasters it can provide, making it easier for communities and governments to plan for large scale natural disasters. It is clear the benefits of this study and the CATDAT database will continue to assist us into the future, in our attempts to manage the risks of our planet’s most destructive forces.

By Hazel Gibson, EGU General Assembly Press Assistant and Plymouth University PhD student.

Hazel is a science communicator and PhD student researching the public understanding of the geological subsurface at Plymouth University using a blend of cognitive psychology and geology, and is one of our Press Assistants this week.

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