Going deep into Earth to predict earthquakes

  • Article by: EMILY CONOVER , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: August 16, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Scientists are drilling miles underground to better understand earthquakes.

MILWAUKEE — To understand earthquakes, scientists have hatched an audacious plan — go straight to the source.

That means drilling miles-deep, directly through faults where two plates of the Earth’s crust come into contact.

Geologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing just that, as part of two experiments at dangerous faults in New Zealand and Japan — faults that could rupture at any moment, causing massive earthquakes.

“These are the natural disasters that kill the most people on the planet. So we need to know as well as we can how they work and whether there are ways to mitigate their effects by early warning or detection,” said Harold Tobin, a professor in the department of geoscience at UW-Madison.

To understand the processes that trigger such massive quakes, the scientists will take samples of rock from the faults they drill, record the conditions in the borehole and, if they’re lucky, catch a quake in action.

Earthquakes are destructive and deadly natural disasters — and the least predictable. Scientists can say how likely a fault is to experience a quake, but only over the span of decades — not very helpful for people who need to take cover in the moments before.

Scientists don’t know how — or even if — it might be possible to predict earthquakes. Part of the problem is they know so little about how earthquakes start. The phenomenon begins deep below the surface of the earth, inaccessible to researchers.

Typically, earthquakes are studied by measuring the seismic waves that emanate from Earth tremors. This information is useful, but indirect. It’s like trying to figure out what’s inside your Christmas present by shaking the box around.

This is why the scientists want to drill down to the fault. They will take cores as they drill, bringing up intact samples of rock in order to study their properties. And they will place instruments in the borehole to measure seismic tremors and other important characteristics of the fault zone.

“If we want to understand earthquakes, it’s one of the few kind of direct ways we can get evidence about what faults are like,” said Clifford Thurber, a geoscience professor at UW-Madison.

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