Thanks to a generous donation from Dr Neil McMahon, Imperial researchers have a rare opportunity to hunt for earthquake warning signs. Dr Saskia Goes, a geophysicist in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, explains how she hopes to approach this long-standing challenge.

“I’m really excited to be part of this work because I’ve been interested in earthquakes for a long time. I spent my PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying the San Andreas Fault. Scientists there have spent 30 years monitoring and waiting for an earthquake but, even when it did come, they didn’t find the warning signs they were looking for.

“The holy grail for earthquake science is forecasting the next big event, so that a life-saving early warning can be issued. But, so far, research hasn’t met our expectations. “The problem is that earthquakes don’t happen often and there haven’t been many since we began measuring possible warning signs. We don’t have enough data to find a clear pattern or a reliable precursor.

“Interestingly, some human activities can increase the likelihood of an earthquake. For example, artificial lakes created when we build large dams have triggered small earthquakes and occasionally larger ones. There’s also evidence that fracking – extracting natural gas from underground and, in particular, injecting waste water from the process deep into the ground – can trigger earthquake activity.

“The energy industry is monitoring these gas extraction sites and that creates a unique opportunity for earthquake scientists like me because we suddenly have a lot more data. Dr McMahon’s links with industry are helping us to tap into this supply of data and the funding he is providing will allow us to capitalise on this new opportunity.

“At Imperial we have created the Centre for Geohazards and have gathered a diverse team of researchers to bring a new perspective to this long-standing problem. Dr Peter Stafford is a civil engineer, Dr Alex Whittaker is a geologist, my research is in geophysics and we’ll work with data scientists to manage all this new data.

“The donation will fund a three year project, including a new postdoctoral researcher who will hunt for correlations between the size and location of earthquakes, and changes that can be measured above ground, such as seismic activity, alterations in rock properties and surface deformation.

“Ultimately, we want to understand the process that leads to an earthquake and thereby increase our ability to forecast them. We might come up with some new ideas of what parameters to test next and, if we’re lucky, we might find some undiscovered earthquake signal.

“This is a rare and amazing opportunity to try something new. It’s not easy to find funding for this type of research – it’s considered too risky because we simply don’t know what we will find. But, like us, Dr McMahon thinks it’s possible to discover something that could forecast and ultimately predict earthquakes. By bringing industry together with a variety of researchers, we might find something new; something no one has seen before.”