Coral Reefs Along Faultlines Could Help Predict Next Big Earthquake

coral reef cliff photo

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia; via Flickr Creative Commons

Earthquake prediction is never an easy science, and we're far from knowing where, when, and how badly the next earthquake will hit. But coral reefs could play a role in helping us get better at identifying the next likeliest place to expect a quake. Geologist Professor Zvi Ben-Avraham and his doctoral student Gal Hartman of Tel Aviv University's Department of Physics and Planetary Sciences are turning their attention to coral reefs and the condition of under-sea canyons to find earthquake fault zones, and determine which areas are most at risk. World's First Underwater Map of the Red Sea Floor
Life Sciences World reports that the team has "created the first underwater map of the Red Sea floor at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, and more importantly, identified deformations on the sea floor indicating fault-line activity. They not only pinpointed the known fault lines along the Syrian-African rift, but located new ones that city engineers in Israel and Jordan should be alert to."

How Fossil Coral Reefs Show Faultlines
The trick for the scientists is looking at how fossil coral fringing-reefs have split apart over centuries, or how underwater landslides and sediment slumps have occurred due to seismic activity. As a plate moves along a fault line, pieces of a coral reef that sits along it will break apart and shift. The scientists looked at "lateral slip across active faults" to see how far portions of reefs have moved.

Looking at "mass wastings" in ancient coral reefs and the way canyon walls have crumbled help in not just showing where fault lines are, but possibly predicting the next epicenter. It's similar to how scientists study fault lines on land, such as along the San Andreas fault in California.

Fossil Corals and Canyon Slopes Can Help Predict The Next Earthquake Epicenter... and Improve Urban Planning
Hartman stated in a press release, "What we can't say is exactly when the next major earthquake will hit. But we can tell city engineers where the most likely epicenter will be... We can now identify high-risk locations with more certainty, and this is a boon to city planners. It's just a matter of time before we'll need to test how well cities will withstand the force of the next earthquake. It's a matter of proper planning."

Indeed this intelligent urban planning makes all the difference when major earthquakes hit. As we've seen, the damage in Japan isn't nearly as bad as it could have been had the country not created such strict building codes, whereas the extensive damage in Haiti is in part due to the poor building construction. It looks in some places of the world, smart urban planning will need to take into account what stories the coral reefs tell.

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