New Technology Aids Scientists in Understanding Historic Earthquakes

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Seismologists venture into unforgiving terrain in California - image by Matthew Field

Seismologists venture into unforgiving terrain in California to learn more about earthquakes: Image by Matthew Field

Major earthquakes, along with the damage and destruction they cause, are a regular feature of life on our planet. But the science of seismology itself is relatively new: recording of earthquakes goes back only until around the beginning of the twentieth century. And though we know that major earthquakes have occurred in the past, we have few details of them, beyond what is present in the written record.

Understanding past seismic events is, however, potentially significant. The knowledge of when earthquakes happen and identification of potential patterns of occurrence and recurrence may be able to assist seismologists in reaching their Holy Grail of earthquake prediction. A pity, then, that the process of identifying historic earthquakes (paleoearthquakes) has proved to be such an arduous one.

Now, however, new technological developments are helping to make this process easier. In particular, a recent study of California’s San Jacinto Fault Zone (a part of the San Andreas fault system) used airborne laser technology, known as LiDAR, to complement traditional field methods and identify the locations and dates of past earthquakes on the fault.

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