Geology And Geophysics

Quartz Key to Predicting Quakes

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"Quartz Key to Predicting Quakes"
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A new study claims evidence that the mineral quartz may hold the key to earthquake prediction.

The science of predicting earthquakes has not made much headway for more than a century. Barring the successful predictions of geologist Jim Berkland—he has an 80 percent success rate—orthodox scientists have been mostly flummoxed.

But now, a potential breakthrough has occurred thanks to research done by two geophysicists: Utah State University's Anthony Lowry and his colleague of Royal Holloway, the University of London, Marta Pérez-Gussinyé.

Their study, "The role of crustal quartz in controlling Cordilleran deformation," has been published in the journal Nature. It sheds light on the age-old enigmas surrounding the dominant geology of the earth: mountains, valleys, rifts, fault lines and the great plains and savannas.

Lowry told the Reuters News Agency that "Certainly the question of why mountains occur where they do has been around since the dawn of time."

Using Earthscope, a new technology that employs deep scanning sensors, the two scientists were able to determine that quartz is evident primarily in areas of the earth with weakened crust. Such geological hot spots are highly likely to generate earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The telltale mineral was present along mountain ranges and fault lines. Using a matrix of portable seismic equipment, they collected data on the gravity and temperature variances spanning the Western U.S.

They admit to sharp surprise when the data revealed that the quartz was always there during the investigations from Idaho to Nevada and Utah. California was rife with quartz along the San Andreas and other minor fault lines.

Calling the discovery of the strong correlation "eye-popping," Lowry and Perez-Gussinye's study reveals how the mineral soaks up and stores water. They explain how all the water suddenly escapes when the quartz is subjected to intense pressure. That release of water permits the rocks comprising the earth's faults to slide, break free and thrust. Lowry calls the process a "viscous cycle."

Ominous data affects New Madrid fault region

The area potentially affected the most severely by a major or great earthquake along the New Madrid fault includes much of the Midwestern and southern U.S. The system of faults takes its name from the town of New Madrid, Missouri.

The network of major and minor faults along the tectonic plate produced two great quakes during 1811 to 1812 and is expected to produce more great quakes in the future.

The great quake of 1812 was so strong it caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards. Scientists have kept a wary eye on the New Madrid for decades knowing that another quake of great magnitude could strike at any time. Depending on the location of the epicenter and the direction of the shock waves, cities like St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago could be devastated.

The region at highest risk covers seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Arkansas—a state once thought to be safe from earthquakes—is now known to be at risk. During early 2011, at least three moderate quakes rocked parts of the state. The new quartz link might help seismologists, geologists and geophysicists better gauge the risk of future quakes in areas once thought inactive or dormant.

A second intense study has been undertaken to study the New Madrid Fault. The two intend to test their quartz theory and once that's under their belts plans to move east towards the Appalachian mountain range.

Their research may lead to better built infrastructure, and better planning for future sites of such things as dams and power utilities—including nuclear-powered plants—plus improved architectural safety of buildings in areas that have been discovered to be high-risk.

Since the great quake in Japan during 2011, Lowry and Perez-Gussinye's research has taken on not only a new relevance, but a greater urgency. Property and lives may be saved by better earthquake prediction. Measure can be taken in advance of large mega-thrust quakes of the sort that rocked Alaska in 1964, Indonesia during 2004, and Japan in 2011.

"We're groping around the elephant at the moment," Lowry told Reuters. "We're basically seeing a different piece of information and this piece is going to be really key to understanding what's going on."

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