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Coronavirus and the Arctic: Svalbard, Norway

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi22 April 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Ilan Kelman

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago about half-way between mainland Norway or the port of Murmansk and the North Pole. It is governed by the Svalbard Treaty from 1920 which gives living and resource extraction rights to the citizens of signatory countries. The territory’s population of 2500-3000 is located primarily on the island of Spitzbergen across several settlements, with the Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen being the largest with over 80% of the population, followed by the Russian-populated Barentsburg.

Welcome sign. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

The only states to have maintained continuous, historic presence on Svalbard are Norway and Russia. Svalbard has become a fascinating case study for disaster-related influences on Norway-Russia relations, such as through a project funded by the Research Council of Norway on Arctic disaster diplomacy. Svalbard’s developed areas are effectively in coastal lowlands and are susceptible to risks ranging from polar bear attacks to snowmobile and aircraft crashes to avalanches and floods. Disease is also a major risk.

Epidemics have been considered for Svalbard long before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. They include zoological and human epidemics due to rabies, tapeworms and the re-emergence of a (potentially mutated) H1N1 virus that previously killed miners on Svalbard during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and remained in the tissues of their bodies which failed to decompose in Svalbard’s permafrost. The successful international fictional TV-series “Fortitude” from 2015-2018 dealing with a mysterious virus outbreak on Svalbard is testament to these concerns over the archipelago’s public health.

The fjord near Longyearbyen. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Healthcare services on Svalbard are limited and are provided mainly by Longyearbyen’s small hospital and to a lesser extent, simple facilities in Barentsburg. Given their limited capacity to deal with either a large influx of sick people and/or complicated health cases, Svalbard’s healthcare services are not built to handle many infected or isolated people, such as has been necessary for the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Longbyearbyen in winter. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Disaster discussions on Svalbard frequently raise the spectre of a cruise ship outbreak, with norovirus being prominent, where such a ship can easily have more people than Svalbard. Often docking in numerous locations before an outbreak is even detected, cruise ships can have potentially catastrophic consequences on the health and healthcare systems of the communities they visit, a risk highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to cruise ships with coronavirus, such as the “Diamond Princess” in Japan.

Thus, Svalbard has enacted precautions, especially in the form of communication protocols and pre-established logistical pathways between Svalbard and Tromsø (on Norway’s mainland) to re-locate patients, typically through air evacuation. In the current situation, Svalbard’s Governor quickly announced measures such as banning tourism and visitors from non-Nordic countries arriving in Svalbard; quarantining tourists already on Svalbard and sending them to Oslo; and enacting a quarantine of seven days for anyone arriving in Svalbard’s other communities.

(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009.)

Nonetheless, even with travel restrictions, the possibility of an outbreak on Svalbard remains, as the virus can survive on inanimate objects such as packaging and boxes, although its resistance to cold is not yet known. In any case, beyond Covid-19, Svalbard must consider other possibilities for epidemics and pandemics. IRDR is contributing to this work by analysing how this remote Arctic location could better deal with disease among other risks.

Covid-19: plans, procedures and improvisation

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi15 April 2020

Written by Professor David Alexander

I have been speaking widely on the COVID-19 crisis on television, radio and podcasts, and in newspaper and magazine articles. As my main speciality is emergency planning and management, most of my comments have dealt with this field. I first came into contact with the scenario for a major 21st-century global pandemic in 2008. This was the collective result of an initiative launched in the mid-2000s by the World Health Organisation to provide a global response plan and encourage individual countries to prepare. Influenza was most feared, thanks to an on-going re-evaluation of the pandemic of 1918-1920 (which killed between 50 and 100 million people). However, the response to SARS in 2003 showed that concerted international action might be necessary to counter a lethal, infectious disease that was not a strain of influenza, and so it has proven.

In essence, emergency management is composed of three elements: plans, procedures and improvisation. The plans orchestrate the procedures, and both should reduce improvisation to a necessary minimum by foreseeing needs and designating means of fulfilling them. Failure to constrain improvisation in this way could be regarded as negligence.

In COVID-19 we see many examples of frantic improvisation as countries, including the United Kingdom, scramble to procure personal protective equipment, ventilators, respirators and so on, and as they hastily create and arrange the policing of social distancing measures. Adaptive management is practised, but not in the spirit in which it was invented (as a means of improving the efficiency of direction), but as a breathless attempt to keep up with a scenario that has not been read, interpreted and turned into preparations.

Although the broad scenario has been with us for between ten and 15 years, many of the details were either neglected or simply did not rise to prominence until the pandemic actually struck. These include the plight of people on large ships or in prisons, both places of confinement. Then there are, very significantly, the arrangements for supporting care homes for the elderly. In some places, more than half of the mortality from COVID-19 apparently occurs in such places, but they have not received the same level of support as have the hospitals and clinics, nor have they always been monitored or properly regulated. Thirdly, the role of social media and mass media in spreading misleading information, conspiracy theories and fantasies needs to be considered. Many people follow celebrities and a number of these have aided the spread of false information, which has led, for example, to multiple attacks on cellular masts under the fallacious assumption that 5G telephony causes the spread of the virus.

I have begun a COVID-19 observatory. This is simply a means of collecting information and classifying it. Because we live in a networked, highly interdependent world, modern disasters are cascading events in which chains and webs of causality occur. Pandemics are recurrent, and we need to refine the basic planning scenario for dealing with them at scales that extend from local to global. We also need to consider how to manage the later stages of the present crisis, and any resurgence of COVID-19 that may occur after the current wave. Information needs to be collected because much of it is ‘perishable’, which means that it is liable to disappear with time if not identified and recorded. It then needs to be classified so that the nature and connections of the cascade can be understood.

Emergency planning needs to be holistic and responsive. A plan should be a ‘living document’ which is constantly refined, updated and made known to its potential users. This gives the opportunity to broaden its scope and tackle previously neglected issues, such as the three outlined above. In emergency planning, experience is a great teacher, and it needs to be married with a systematic, logical approach to the rational use of available resources. These are all good justifications for studying cascades. Hence, at UCL-IRDR, we have a Cascading Disasters Research Group, which produces theory, applications and analyses of practical examples.

I will be pleased to hear from anyone who would like to contribute to the COVID-19 observatory. The results of the exercise will eventually be shared in order to help everyone gain a deeper understanding of what is going on.

Prof. David Alexander


New paper on potential errors in seismic hazard calculations revealed from structural geology field data

Claudia Sgambato15 April 2020

A new paper by Claudia Sgambato (PhD student at IRDR), Dr Joanna Faure Walker (IRDR) and Prof Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck) has been published providing insight into uncertainties in earthquake probability calculations. Specifically, this work shows that calculations in earthquake recurrence that do not consider changes in slip-rate measurements along a fault could have significant uncertainties. This problem is displayed using geological data collected during fieldword for an example fault section from Southern Italy.

Detailed data of the geometry, kinematics and rates of slip have been collected across a normal fault in the Southern Apennines, Italy, and the results show variations in slip vector (direction of fault movement) and throw (vertical displacement) along such a fault. The throw gradually decreases towards the tip of the fault, but variations are observed along the fault. In particular, we see changes in the throw across areas of structural complexity such as in an along-strike bend in the fault plane where the fault dip is greater, i.e. where the fault has a local change in direction and becomes steeper.

View of the fault in the Southern Apennines. The fault scarp is well-exposed for about 3 km.

It has been previously demonstrated that such variability affects seismic hazard calculations (Faure Walker et al., 2018). This was shown using a fault with high resolution geological field data. In the newly published study we ask: How would the uncertainty in seismic hazard calculations be affected for faults where detailed slip-rate data are not used?

To investigate how incomplete data produce greater uncertainty in seismic hazard calculations, we calculated strain-rate values across the fault (as strain-rate can be used as a proxy for seismic moment released during earthquakes). First this was done using all our measurements, and then degrading the dataset, removing one measurement at a time. We found that excluding measurements in such a way produces a high variability in strain-rate and if such variations are unnoticed, different values of strain-rate would be produced, and hence different values would result in seismic hazard calculations.

Therefore, this study suggests that: (1) field structural data are fundamental to understand variations in slip-rate; (2) using only one measurement of slip-rate along a fault for calculating hazard is not advisable; (3) the potential error associated to the slip-rate variability should be implemented in seismic hazard calculations.

To read more, see Sgambato et al. (2020): Uncertainty in strain-rate from field measurements of the geometry, rates and kinematics of active normal faults: Implications for seismic hazard assessment

Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak

xiao.han.1713 February 2020

‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the only right and proper end of government’

Thursday, February 6, 2020, was another ordinary day in London. It was full of sunshine, comfortable and more humidity would be better. In China, however, it was another difficult day, not only in the Province of Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic but in every household in the homeland. The coronavirus has been spreading for more than 40 days. The situation, unfortunately, does not seem to get better as experts are still warning of further risk of pandemic expansion. The news on the lack and shortages of medical and personal protective equipment are adding more worries and fears among people, especially when their mobile devices are bombarded with such news in every single second.

Source: Chinanews.com

Yes, technologies could have unintended consequences, but they have made it possible to communicate with the people who are stuck in their homes at the affected areas despite following a strict ‘self-isolation strategy’. For now, there is not another effective method to reduce the expansion of the pandemic better than ‘self-isolation’. We are glad that people’s livelihood is not fully interrupted by this pandemic, thanks to the modernised technologies and society. We, as students who have interests in disasters, find this pandemic a great opportunity to discuss and study. Our discussion here might be dogmatic and theoretical but at least we try to contribute to this issue based on our humble knowledge, background, and cognitive scope.

During these tough days, I invited current master students and alumni of IRDR who have interests in discussing this pandemic. Further, I have invited some scholars from other institutes and universities who work in DRR and emergency planning field. We discussed a number of ideas. They were all important, but I chose three aspects to illustrate in this blog.

The current situation in some cities

There are two scholars join this forum in distance via Skype. Dr. Barbara, who recently graduated from Coventry University and currently lived in Sichuan, and Miss Huiyan Kang, who possibility would join IRDR in this September as a Ph.D. student and currently located in Peking. There is not so much difference when local authorities propose to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to their report from their place. All of the local authorities are following the strictest measures, which is the ‘isolation policy’.  In fact, residents’ committees across the whole country are following this policy to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Accordingly, community securities and guards must close the gate of the community and strictly check every person entering the community. At the same time, people have been strongly advised to stay home and limit contact as much as possible, eliminating or reducing the pathway of the coronavirus infection.

Source: www.news.cn

From the report in Hankou, part of Wuhan, the environment is more horrific as the pandemic has covered people living in that city as a gigantic cloud. The alarm of the ambulance has become the symbol of fear, heard continuously from the streets. The hospital in Hankou is fully busy as people face death every single day. In addition, sunlight could not break through the cloud in the sky and a sunny day has become a luxury for the people in the Hankou.

People still believe the situation will be under control and that they will overcome the difficulties like they had already done for SARS. Most people had volunteered to stay home and report any suspicious symptoms of being infected. Although we have heard a lot of news about people being irresponsible and hiding the travel and contact history, the social responsibility and cooperation of the public emerged through this pandemic is fundamentally the larger norm. Every single event happening in our society is reminding us of the SARS nightmare, 17 years back, when people learned that good hygiene habits, isolation, social responsibility, and social solidarity are important factors to overcome this disaster too.

The argument of humanitarian aid

The second important aspect we discussed was the humanitarian logistics and aid. The humanitarian supply chain is challenged in this pandemic. The event is letting the public see how the charity organisations work in reality, rather than observing the armchair strategist and empty talk. Similar to bureaucratic systems, emergency response capacities in the provincial level are also being tested by this pandemic and the result is perceived barely satisfactory. The intervention from the central government was seen as necessary as poor planning and response strategies were found in provincial authorities in the early stage of the pandemic.

It is known that lack of adequate medical equipment has caused suffering among the nurses and doctors who are fighting the virus in the front line. The sudden increased demand for masks has caused a temporary shortage in the market and spiked prices. This has become a perfect time for speculators participating in the market and getting their ‘first bucket of gold’. Masks used to be medical protective equipment and now have become an absolute necessity. Fundraising for medical support has been initiated, the usual case when China and Chinese people are faced with a disaster. Chinese people from overseas give as much as they can to support.

Source: UCL Chinese Students and Scholars Association (UCL CSSA)


But how this kind of generosity has been used in the epidemic area? Do the doctors, nurses and the public really and finally enjoy the contribution from their compatriots? It seems that more transparency is needed for some specific humanitarian and charity agencies in China. Such rumours about the lack of efficiency, transparency, and supervision are more dreadful than the pandemic itself. Coronavirus breaks the organ of the human body, but rumours kill humanity and kindness in human nature.

Ethic of the donation, brief thinking at the end

At the end of our discussion, there was a brief philosophy thought. The slogan that UCL Chinese Society used for fundraising: ‘20 pounds might be one meal for your daily life, nevertheless, it could protect 4-5 medical workers away from virus infection’. This slogan reminds me of the argument of the drowning child in the pond from Peter Singer. The only cost of saving the drowning child is staining your trousers by dirt, which is morally insignificant compared to saving a life. Similarly, the only cost of saving the medical staff from the risk is only the cost of a daily meal of an overseas student. With the support of modern technology and online banking systems, distance is no longer an obstacle for the realisation of maximum human utility and happiness. Moreover, recipients are psychologically more closed to donors. We do not know how much UCL Chinese Society received yet, how much lives will these funds save and how many will the kids of wealthy people donate instead of spending money on buying luxurious properties or clothing. Perhaps, they are not utilitarian and altruistic, or they have no idea about these ethical ideas. Such donation is volunteered, real saint and charity, but not an obligation or duty.

If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. The argument from Peter Singer about famine relief for the Bangel tragedy in the 1970s is renewing now. London is far from Wuhan, but we cannot deny the tragedy because we are far from the tragedy. This is a controversial debate, and sometimes it links to the topic of how to distinguish the duty and charity. In the daily life of human beings, the donation is supererogatory, but it is no wrong to do so. In the end, if I could refer a statement from the Decretum Gratiani:

‘The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.’

Jeremy Bentham would be happy to see those words that have been written in the University College London.



Dr. Barbara (Coventry University)

Guangzhao LYU (Ph.D. candidate in CMII)

Huiyan KANG (IRDR alumna)

Lan LI (IRDR Master Student)

Xuanrong WANG (Ph.D. candidate in IRDR)

Xiao HAN (Ph.D. candidate in IRDR)

8/Feb/2019. UCL IRDR


Could Arctic disasters create diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi12 June 2019

Post written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda, PhD researcher at UCL IRDR

Fancy lodgings with outdoor Jacuzzis, brand-name clothing outlets, a Thai massage centre, restaurants offering haute cuisine, a supermarket that displays all manner of fresh food and electronics items—one would have thought that I landed in a First World urban setting. But the Norwegian-governed settlement of Longyearbyen on the Arctic Svalbard archipelago is anything but that.

Longyearbyen’s main street with fancy restaurants and hotels during Svalbard’s dark winter season – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

Rather, it is a small settlement north of the Arctic Circle, the size of a thumbprint viewed from on high – plunked down in the midst of a valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and a vast road-less expanse of rock, snow, and glacial ice that is prone to avalanches, landslides, flooding and extreme weather conditions. The archipelago is roamed by polar bears, geographically isolated from the Norwegian mainland that governs it (it is halfway between Norway and the North Pole), and reliant on good weather conditions to access it. Thus, Svalbard is especially vulnerable to disasters, from which response mechanisms, no matter how well planned, may not always deliver.

The landscape of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009


A photo of Longyearbyen taken on a winter climb to a mountain top nearby in -47 °C – Copyright Patrizia Isabelle Duda 2019

As far as disasters go, there is a gamut of factors besides its remote location and its dicey weather that impinge on Svalbard’s ability to respond. A lack of communication between its settlements is problematic. Its possible overreliance on national response structures which must both be able to react with adequate resources within narrow time frames, as well as have the political will to do so, further compounds the precarious situation. In addition, the present restricted ability of Svalbard’s small hospital to treat more than minor-level injuries, necessitates an over-reliance on aeromedical evacuation to the mainland.  Thus, the capacity for major trauma scenarios is missing.

Given both the existing gaps as well as clear developing and future challenges, it is critical that we take stock of Svalbard’s emergency preparedness and response capacity and develop robust policies that are adapted to the local realities on the island. This means that not only search-and-rescue capacities are needed, which it seems Svalbard has well understood (albeit these are and can only be imperfect); but that improved governance on a much wider scale is urgently required. It must be remembered that disaster efforts do not always happen formally. Both when formal disaster efforts fail, but also when they do not, informality is often a key element of disaster preparedness and response.  In Svalbard’s particular case, this means cooperation and coordination between the two main players on the island—formally, Norway and Russia, and informally, Norwegians and Russians—for efforts both to prevent disasters, as well as to address them when they happen.

These are the questions I pondered together with a team of nine researchers from London, Moscow and around Norway who assembled in Longyearbyen to launch our new project. Generously funded by the Norwegian Research Council, we initiated a 2-year investigation into disaster diplomacy’s potential to foster cooperation (or not) between Svalbard’s Norwegian and Russian stakeholders in their formal and informal responses to disasters. To this end, the project will be looking at three hypothetical disaster scenarios: an oil spill emergency, a crisis involving radiation release from a ship, and a disease outbreak in (Russian) Barentsburg—the second of the only two permanently inhabited settlements on Svalbard.

View of Longyearbyen – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

The importance of this project is startingly clear. Moving on from its early days as a coal-mining settlement, Svalbard is now home (albeit a transient one) to a growing population of scientists and tourists. Moreover, this group of islands is currently being re-imagined and re-developed into an Arctic Ocean emergency management hub.  This new hub will act like a magnet, drawing yet more scientists, tourists and job-seekers to an island of roughly 2600 inhabitants, requiring quickly built new infrastructure to support these activities. Coupled with the effects of the already changing environment, Svalbard’s vulnerable settlements, not to mention, the whole region and its ecosystems, are further at risk.

Additionally, some fear that it may also spark a new round of disputes and conflicts between Norway and Russia, (and looking out on the broader horizon, between other nations that have stakes in the Arctic region). Transnational cooperation will be more crucial than ever in tackling the already compromised possible disaster responses. Thus, from a different perspective, this emerging reality might, at least in theory, pave the way for greater diplomatic and practical collaboration on disaster issues and may, by extension, improve many aspects of relations between these two countries that share vested interests in Svalbard.

It is clear from research on disaster diplomacy in other global settings that this second idealistic and much more hopeful perspective is not supported by actual results. Disaster diplomacy has not yet been shown to lead to better relations between countries. But can these findings be applied to Svalbard, and to the Arctic in general, an area which is held to be ‘off the charts’ in so many spheres? As researchers, we hear the often-recited mantra that Arctic players have already come up with uniquely successful and often unprecedented cooperation schemes. Thus, could the Arctic prove to be an exception in the universe of unsuccessful disaster diplomacy case studies? And might the various factors that were present in the particular Arctic situation be extrapolated and applied in disaster conditions elsewhere in the world?

“Welcome” – Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019

I ask myself these questions, as I gaze out past the high-end stores and entertainment centres, to the beautiful but forbidding mountain range just behind them, looking off into the polar-night sky. Svalbard is fragile, vulnerable to disaster, and may well become even more exposed to danger.  But might it not also hold the seeds to plant future opportunities for cooperation and improvement in international relations? Or, will the research results elsewhere in the world be confirmed? Our team hopes that our research will be able to begin to answer some of these questions.

Health, Risk Disaster (HeaRD) UK-Japan Network: Some observations and reflections

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi10 June 2019

Post written by Dr. Amira Osman, UCL – IRDR

I attended a research symposium, which was part of Health, Risk Disaster (HeaRD) UK-Japan Network held in Japan from April 15-17, 2019 and organised by the University of Edinburgh and Fukushima Medical University https://ghpu.sps.ed.ac.uk/heard/. Participants included researchers and students from the UK and Japan as well as practitioners, notably medical staff from Japan. The variety of topics discussed in the presentations and talks reflected the  participants’ diverse areas of expertise.

Fukushima Daiichi disaster                

On the 11th of March 2011, Japan was struck by an earthquake that triggered a tsunami and a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This triple disaster came to be known as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The damage to the nuclear power plant led to the release of radioactive materials. More than 15,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced as a result of this devastating event. Land and animals also experienced an unprecedented damage, notably due to high radiation. The aim of this symposium was to explore the various social, environmental and economic dimensions of Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

The symposium

The symposium included a two-day workshop and visits to disaster sites.  The workshop took place at Fukushima Medical Hospital and Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital. It covered a number of topics from maternity and child health, community studies and broader social issues linked to health, radiation-related issues (Fukushima-specific), and vulnerability and disadvantage following a disaster. A Slack workplace was also created for the participants to continue networking, uploading their research activities/papers and informing each other about funding opportunities and relevant events.

Then, we had the opportunity to visit a number of sites related to the disaster such as a damaged fish farm and empty houses in red zones areas: the areas that were still contaminated and labelled as unsafe for people to live in. We also visited areas that are declared safe for evacuees. There, I had the chance to chat with some of them who welcomed us with great hospitability, and spoke of the joy of recovering and returning home. A visit was also made to  the Fukushima nuclear power plant and its surrounding area. And lastly, we visited a local NGO working with the communities that were affected by the disaster to further understand the role of grassroots organisations in the disaster.

Lessons learnt

Fish farm in Fukushima hit by the tsunami

The sight of damaged areas still makes you think that the disaster had just occurred. This was the case with different sites such as a fish farm near the Fukushima plant,  a nursing home and a farm in Namie town where contaminated cattle (still alive) had white spots on their skin as a result of high radiation. These contaminated cattle escaped the government slaughter of contaminated cattle because the owner who first refused to evacuate, despite the high volume of radiation, stood against the government order to kill his contaminated cattle.

Farm in Namie town, an area affected by the disaster

This was due to three main reasons. First, as a farmer in a family farm he had built some connection with his livestock. Second, the farmer believed that the cattle would eat contaminated grass, therefore contributing to decontamination of the area. Third, his refusing to follow the government order was a way of protesting against the nuclear power plant, which he believed it harms the environment. This experience reveals the complexity of resilience and responses to disasters, and that survivors’ own perceptions on how to deal with disasters and its aftermath need to be considered when applying a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) approach.

The radiation from the nuclear power plant also contaminated the soil. The contaminated soil was kept in black plastic bags to be stored underground in designated areas for thirty years. It was unclear what would happen to this soil after the thirty years have passed.

Dinner at Minamisoma City

Dining in Minamisoma city

A joyful element of the visit to Fukushima, despite my short stay, was getting to know the Japanese people and their culture. This was demonstrated in the welcoming attitude I experienced at the symposium venues, local shops, restaurants, train stations and hotels. Despite the language barriers, it was not that difficult to be understood and/or to understand conversations in Japanese/English when buying train tickets and asking for an adaptor for a laptop at the hotel. Enjoying the delicious Japanese food and conversations with the other workshop participants was one of the highlights of the visit.

UCL IRDR PhD student Forum 2019

Claudia Sgambato24 January 2019

When was the last time you talked about your research in an informal and/or original way? Last week, UCL IRDR doctoral students had this opportunity when they met for the annual PhD forum, to present their projects to their peers and discuss research and new results.

A total of 26 students from all over the world presented on some of the most recent and interesting topics: from all the possible aspects of seismic hazard, to detailed methods to study tsunami deposits in Indonesia, passing through post-disaster management of toxic waste, and volunteering in Oman. Wouldn’t you be amazed to hear about the effects of climate change on ice sheets and the importance of financing climate change adaptation in small islands? These and many others were the topics discussed by the IRDR PhD students.

First year students were bound to one minute for their presentation and forbidden to use any technical jargon; it might seem like an easy task, but trying to squeeze a four-year project into a minute turned out to be a hard challenge.

Have you ever thought about finally putting your dance lessons into practice? Do you want to show off your great rap skills? Everything is possible for second year PhD students, who had four minutes to present their project without using a computer. Better start writing your rhymes, because the competition is high!

Chiko presented her project on ‘Measuring Vulnerability and Resilience to Disaster Impacts in Indonesian Cities’ (photo by Ilan Kelman)

Back to normal for third year students, who must practice for conferences and the approaching thesis writing. They successfully presented their research in a technical and professional way. Presentations included topics such as earthquake forecasting, Emergency Management Systems, informality in disaster governance, community vulnerability to Tropical cyclones in Mauritius, and many others.

Justine is reading his tweet on ‘Effectiveness of Nigeria’s disaster management system with respect to building collapses, human stampedes and electric power failures’(photo by Ilan Kelman).

Finally, fourth year students had to demonstrate their communication skills, using one of the most used social platforms to disseminate science: Twitter. Using a maximum of 280 characters, students demonstrated their capacity to synthesize their innovative results.

The PhD forum is one of the many opportunities that IRDR offers to help students test their ability to communicate science to a diversified audience and encourage critical analysis and innovation.

Visit the page ttps://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/people/phd-students to find out more about IRDR PhD students and their projects.

Earthquake surface measurements reveal new revelations about how faults rupture

Joanna P Faure Walker12 November 2018

PhD student Francesco Iezzi (Birkbeck College), supervised by Prof Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck College) and Dr Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), has published a paper that could revolutionalise how geologists and seismic hazard modellers use long established scaling relationships between fault lengths and surface rupture parameters.

The paper is freely available to all and can be found here.

What new observations have been made?

For five earthquakes studied, the surface fault slip (the amount the fault surface moved during the earthquake) and the throw (the vertical component of the slip) was higher where there was a bend along the length of the fault.

Following the central Italy August and October 2017 earthquakes that ruptured the ground surface, we made detailed high spatial resolution measurements of surface fault displacement along the length of the surface fault ruptures. A study of the amount of vertical and horizontal displacement that occurred along the length of the fault revealed that the throw and slip that occurred during the earthquakes increased where there are bends in the fault. This result is critical and has not been identified before for individual earthquakes.

Damage in Amatrice from the August 2016 Earthquake. Photograph take during EEFIT fieldwork by Dr Joanna Faure Walker.

Why does this occur?

We hypothesis that this occurs in order to maintain the horizontal strain (change in length relative to the original length) across a fault during an earthquake and the long-term horizontal strain-rate that accumulates from multiple earthquakes over thousands of years.

Are there other examples of this?

We then went back and studied other examples earthquakes where there was enough information to determine whether a similar pattern of higher throw and slip could be seen across bends in the fault. In the three further events studied in USA Basin and Range, Greece, and Mexico, we found the same relationship. So it seems this phenomenon occurs worldwide in normal (extensional) faults.

This was the first time that the change in vertical component of slip during an earthquake has been shown to be predictable. However, the observed relationship of increased throw across fault bends has been identified previously in long-term displacements that have accumulated over 15 thousand years as a result of multiple earthquakes in Italy (Faure Walker et al., 2009, Wilkinson et al., 2015). Before now, it was not known whether this increase was caused by there being more earthquakes across the bends or more movement during individual events.  We now know that there can be more slip during individual events, however we do not know whether this is the only mechanism for creating a long-term higher throw-rate across the bends.

What does this mean for earthquake science?

This paper suggests that slip during an earthquake will change where there is a bend along the length of the fault and this change can be quantified and predicted using the proposed theory. This means that close to the fault, earthquakes may be more damaging near a bend in the fault. This finding suggests that we cannot use fault scaling relationships between fault length and expected slip in earthquakes without consideration of fault geometry. This paper can also explain much of the scatter seen in existing plots of maximum surface slip against fault length because when collecting the data as input for such relationships, consideration was not given about whether the measurements were taken across fault bends or not.

These changes in slip along faults in individual earthquakes related to the fault geometry should be included in probabilistic seismic hazard assessments (PSHA).

What other research in the IRDR relates to this?

This work contributes to the IRDR and colleagues’ work on investigating fault behaviour to improve our understanding of earthquake hazard. Recent papers have demonstrated the importance of including detailed fault geometry and slip-rates in seismic hazard calculations (Faure Walker et al., 2018) and Coulomb stress transfer calculations (Mildon et al., 2016, 2017).

Iezzi et al (2018), Coseismic Throw Variation Across Along‐Strike Bends on Active Normal Faults: Implications for Displacement Versus Length Scaling of Earthquake Ruptures, Journal of Geophysical Research, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018JB016732 

More data needed for better earthquake hazard and risk calculations

Joanna P Faure Walker6 November 2018

New research demonstrates the importance of having detailed measurements at multiple sites along a fault of how fast the fault is moving and how the surface orientation of the fault changes. To access the full paper click here.

Why do we need fault measurements?

Measurements of fault slip rate and the geometry of the fault (it’s 3d orientation) can be used to calculate earthquake recurrence intervals to give probabilities of how likely earthquakes of different magnitudes are to occur. We also need these measurements to model how much ground shaking there will be at given locations. Hazard maps of expected ground shaking can be used to inform building codes and identify where buildings including homes and schools might need retrofitting to improve their resistance to earthquake shaking.

There are other methods available for creating earthquake hazard maps, such as using historical records of earthquake shaking. However, these records unlikely go back far enough in time to capture all faults capable of hosting large earthquakes because some faults will not have hosted earthquake within the time period covered by such records. Therefore, the hazard from some faults would be missing in hazard maps based solely on historical seismicity leading to underestimations in earthquake hazard.

What new insights have been revealed in the research publication?

The paper, entitled “Variable fault geometry suggests detailed fault slip rate profiles and geometries are needed for fault-based probabilistic seismic hazard assessment (PSHA)” demonstrates that relying on only one or a few measurements of how fast the fault is moving along a fault and projecting these measurements along the entire fault may lead to underestimating the uncertainty in the earthquake hazard calculations. Crucially, there may be locations where the hazard is underestimated, meaning people could be at more risk than suggested by simpler models (the converse is also possible). Therefore, earthquake hazard assessments based on fault parameters need to either use detailed measurements including measurements of how fast the fault is moving at multiple sites along the fault or to incorporate how the lack of such data increases the uncertainty in calculated earthquake hazard assessments.

Why are detailed measurements not being already used?

In many regions it is difficult to constrain the fault slip rate (how much the fault has moved in a given time) or throw rate (vertical component of slip rate) along a fault at even one location, let alone several. However, there are regions where this is possible so as more data is collected, this detail should help to improve earthquake hazard assessments both in those regions and worldwide.

Where can I find out more?

Faure Walker J., Visini F., Roberts G., Galasso C., McCaffrey K., and Mildon Z., (2018) Variable fault geometry suggests detailed fault slip rate profiles and geometries are needed for fault-based probabilistic seismic hazard assessment (PSHA), Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, doi: 10.1785/0120180137

The Fault2SHA Working Group is an ESC (European Seismological Commission) group of researchers in both universities and civil protection authorities collaborating to increase incorporation of fault data in seismic hazard assessments and to improve our understanding of how such data should be used.

Induced earthquakes – how and when they have occurred, and why should anyone care

Joanna P Faure Walker27 September 2018

Despite the high volume of material out there about induced earthquakes, it can be hard to separate fact from opinion. To help explain what induced seismicity is, how it is caused and what the risks are, a group of researchers from UCL Department of Chemical Engineering and Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction have published “Addressing the risks of induced seismicity in subsurface energy operations”.

What causes “induced seismicity”? Induced earthquakes, those mainly caused by human action, can invoke strong feelings towards the processes that cause them, the most widely known among these is hydraulic fracturing (less favourably known as “fracking”). But hydraulic fracturing for shale gas extraction is not the only cause of induced earthquakes – several industrial activities are capable of inducing or triggering earthquakes, including mining, dams, conventional oil and gas operations, groundwater extraction, CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS), underground waste fluid disposal and the creation of geothermal energy systems. Rightly or wrongly, negative public perception and local public opposition to induced seismicity has led to numerous international projections having been suspended, delayed or curtailed.

How does industrial operation induce earthquakes? The Earth’s crust is believed to be in a state where it is critically stressed and only small stress changes in the right direction can cause an earthquake. Industrial action can alter the stress field in the most shallow part of the Earth’s crust, inducing a seismic event.

Are these events getting more likely? The number of documented cases of man-made earthquakes in different industrial activities is rapidly increasing: In 2017 alone, there were two reported record-breaking magnitude induced seismic events. One of the more well-known areas of induced seismicity is in the United States: The notable increase in seismicity within the last decade in the previously seismically quiet State of Oklahoma has been widely attributed to large scale waste water injection wells connected to the hydrocarbon production industry.

How big are induced earthquakes? Most induced earthquakes are low in magnitude (typically less than magnitude 4). However, even these small events are capable of causing structural damage to properties and evoking widespread fear and anxiety. We say most are small, but there are some examples where large magnitude earthquakes have been alleged to be caused by human activities. For example, in China in 2008, a dam was built that filled a reservoir behind it. A short time later, a magnitude 8 earthquake occurred in the region. Some scientists proposed this large earthquake was caused by the mass loading of the water in the dam and its penetration into rock, affecting the subsurface pressure in an underlying fault line and possibly setting off a series of ruptures that led to the earthquake.

So what is being done about it? Minimising seismic risk should be a high priority for industrial operators. All fluid injection processes should require detailed seismic hazard assessments for imaging and characterising faults prior to operations, with dedicated monitoring systems in addition to existing national seismic monitoring facilities. For assessing the risks, monitoring the operations, and designing mitigation strategies using predictive models that can characterise the spatiotemporal evolution of induced seismicity would be extremely helpful. Examples of best practice approaches show that maintaining a transparent dialogue between operator and the public, while adhering to the regulatory processes can allow safe operations in an atmosphere of public acceptance.

Where can I find out more? With all the controversy around such events, we need to understand what are the risks of induced earthquakes and how can we model them. In the published article in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, Richard Porter, Alberto Atriolo, Haroun Mahgerefteh and Joanna Faure Walker provide a review of several alleged induced seismicity case studies that have occurred in the last 15 years covering a variety of causal mechanisms. We discuss issues relating to public perception and procedures and strategies that could be implemented to help prevent and mitigate future occurrences.

The above work was funded by Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, Grant/Award Number: 640979