March 16, 2011

Understanding Earthquake Physics

In the view of the catastrophes which have devastated Japan and cause the Japanese people such abysmal suffering, it's really hard to find the right words to tell you what is going on in my little, relatively unimportant career. Even though I'm a scientist and my thinking is bound to the laws of physics, I've believed in some kind of bigger power, some kind of idea controlling the gears within the complex systems of the universe. But now, I'm losing this faith because it's just impossible to even think of any intention behind the events which bring the Japanese people close to the edge of a national abyss. And I'm truly worried that the worst thing of them all is still to come because the developments at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant seem to get out of control.

From a scientific point of view, the events in Japan should remind us of the urgent need for a better understanding of earthquake physics. I've actually dealt a lot with this topic in the last months. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake on March 11 coincided with the final days of the work on my bachelor's thesis on the analysis of common patterns in frequency-magnitude distributions of natural seismicity in subduction zones. I'd like to quote from the first chapter of my bachelor's thesis:

Despite all agony, or actually just because of that much agony, it is desirable to better understand the processes and physics behind the occurrence of earthquakes in order to assess earthquake hazards more precisely and probably save the lives of millions of people. However, earthquake hazard assessment and earthquake prediction in particular are very poorly-understood fields of the Earth sciences. This difficulty becomes obvious if one takes a closer look at the hitherto existing number of major earthquakes which have been predicted successfully or in other words precisely enough so that the population could be warned early and prepare well for a particular earthquake. One will find out that the number mounts up to zero. Unfortunately, even the most experienced seismologists working either for federal and state agencies, universities or private institutions worldwide have not been able to predict any major earthquake so far.

Many earthquake experts even say that successful earthquake prediction will not be realized any time in the foreseeable future, but who dared to prophesy that nowadays Earth scientists would be able to predict hurricanes and tornadoes? Just as severe storms and other weather phenomena are predicted by weather hazard agencies nowadays, in the same way earthquake hazard agencies may one day issue forecasts on earthquakes. Earthquake prediction is still a long way off. However, it may become reality some day, but mankind is never going to get to this point unless much more is learned about the nature of earthquake processes. Hence, it is a very inspiring but also challenging task to make contributions to this field of seismicity analysis.

I wrote these lines some weeks ago, but unfortunately they've gained a new actuality. However, even with a better understanding of earthquake physics, literally nobody would have dared to predict a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the Japan Trench. In the end, this shows that we know so little about earthquakes and that there is so much to find out about their physics.

Personally, I'm glad that I finally managed to finish my bachelor's thesis because from now on I can concentrate all my efforts on the last modules of my master's studies and my master's thesis which I plan to begin with by next month. There's a lot more to come for me this year, but for today I want to leave it at that.