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Scientists prepare to travel to Italian earthquake disaster zone

(6 April 2009)

A typical fault scarp from the Apennines

A typical fault scarp from the Apennines

Durham University scientists are hoping to fly out to the scene of a devastating earthquake in Italy.

The earthquake has killed 50 people and left thousands homeless. The Durham experts are part of a UK-based team of scientists who are studying the L’Aquila fault thought to be behind today’s disaster. Professor Bob Holdsworth, of the Reactivation Research Group and Head of Earth Sciences at Durham University, said: “The location of the earthquake lies along the Apennine backbone of Italy, a region where recently created mountains are now slowly collapsing due to a complex large-scale interaction between plate tectonic forces and gravity. “The evidence for these earthquakes is everywhere in Italian life, ranging from cataclysmic events recorded throughout human history and legend through to the steep, cliff-like fault scarps that can be traced across the landscape.” Scarp features – often many tens of kilometres long – are geological scars showing where the huge faults responsible for many of the earthquakes have torn through the surface of the Earth in recent times. Scientists from the universities of Durham, Edinburgh, and UCL Birkbeck, funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), are using these fault scarps to establish the history of earthquakes on faults in the Abbruzzo region of Italy, including the L'Aquila fault that is probably to blame for today's disaster. A Durham University laser scanner* is being used to create cm-resolution three-dimensional ‘photocopies’ of the fault surfaces. These results are combined with radiometric dating of crushed rocks and computer modelling of fault growth processes, allowing the team to constrain slip histories along each scarp. Professor Holdsworth added: “The results may hold the key to understanding and predicting both the timing and likely magnitude of future earthquakes in this, and many other seismically active regions of the world. “In this way, Earth Scientists are using a range of new techniques and approaches to reconstruct past events more accurately and therefore better predict the future.”

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