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Israeli startup develops method to predict and prevent earthquakes

Posted By Nicky Blackburn On January 1, 2006 @ 11:00 pm In | No Comments

Nachman believes that his system will be able to predict the center of an upcoming earthquake within one meter, half a Richter scale in magnitude, and within a timeframe of between a week to a month.As communities around the Indian Ocean basin continue to rebuild their lives after last Christmas’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, which was followed less than 10 months later by October’s violent earthquake in Kashmir, an Israeli company has developed a unique new method which it claims can not only map and accurately predict earthquakes like this, but also prevent them from happening.

Predicting earthquakes is one of the most challenging tasks facing scientists today. The history of earthquake prediction is long, fruitless and often grim. Not long ago, a group of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, claimed an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude on the Richter scale would hit southern California by September 2004. Nothing happened.

Many seismologists, including Sr. Arthur Iam, an expert in earthquake research at the University of Colombia, believe it is virtually impossible to predict earthquakes.

Terramoto, however, disagrees. The tiny three-man company has developed a three-stage method based on existing equipment that its founder, Meny Nachman, believes will provide just the answers that scientists need to prevent major earthquakes from occurring along known fault lines.

“One of the biggest problems in the world is predicting when and where an earthquake might occur,” says Nachman, the CEO of the company. “Until now there was no technology that could precisely chart subterranean pressure or friction building up along the fault lines. This is exactly what we have invented, a system that can map and pin-point exactly where pressures are building up.”

Terramoto’s patent-pending method starts by mapping known fault lines. A score of measuring stations equipped with geophones – standard seismological equipment – are buried in the ground along a fault line. Each of these geophones measures the low frequency noise caused by faint earthquakes. Using triangulation techniques, the geophones locate the points in the ground where pressure in building up.

The theory behind this is that if energy is being released regularly and in similar quantities at various points along the fault line, then pressure is building up at the points in between where there is no activity. These irregularities are attributed to rocks, sometimes several kilometers in size, which are buried deep in the ground and stop movement along a fault line in the specific locality. Tremendous pressure is accumulated here, which is released abruptly when the rock finally crushes. The strength of the quake that follows depends on the amount of energy accumulated in the rock over the years.

When Terramoto’s measuring stations locate a potentially hazardous point, a deep ultrasound survey is performed, which can identify the specific rock where pressure is accumulating, its size, shape, and position. A sample of this rock is extracted using drilling equipment (like the ultrasound equipment, already in use by the oil industry), and the sample is evaluated for strength. Mathematical models predict how much pressure the rock can endure before succumbing to the force of the tectonic plate. The amount of pressure built up can indicate the possible force of the earthquake that will occur when the rock eventually shatters.

To give an accurate prediction of when this quake might occur, two lasers are placed on the different tectonic plates, and the interference pattern they create is measured to evaluate the relative velocity at which the two plates are moving, and in turn the energy accumulation inside the rock.

When a high-magnitude earthquake has been predicted, Terramoto’s method calls for explosives to be drilled into the rock to create a series of controlled explosions that will weaken the rock and let the energy accumulated over the years be released gradually in a number of small quakes, rather than one devastating one.

The method can be adapted for fault lines along the ocean, with geophones sunk down to sea level with large cement blocks. Nachman admits that drilling to relieve pressure in these locations is more difficult than on land, but adds that it is not impossible.

The technological development of Terramoto’s earthquake detection and prevention system is supported by scientists in the field from both Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nachman believes that each system, which includes 6-10 geophones, will cost customers in the region of $1 million.

The company has already partially tested the system along the Syrian-African fault line, north of the Dead Sea in Israel, mapping the exact location of the fault.

“This is a very simple system to find where pressure builds up and to solve it,” the 46-year-old Nachman told ISRAEL21c. “Using it we could have prevented last year’s quake off Indonesia, and the deadly tsunami that followed after it.”

Some 216,000 people were lost in this disaster, though the final figure is considered to be much higher, and unlikely to ever be known, since many people were swept out to sea, and records destroyed.

Nachman, a serial entrepreneur who has 21 patents to his name, began thinking of developing an earthquake detection technology several years ago when a couple from his neighborhood were killed in an earthquake in Turkey. Having worked at the Geophysical Institute of Israel for a short time after leaving the army, he was familiar with the science, and began to explore new options.

Nachman believes that his system will be able to predict the center of an upcoming earthquake within one meter, half a Richter scale in magnitude, and within a timeframe of between a week to a month. He also believes that it will be possible to predict earthquakes many years in advance.

Even if prevention by drilling proves too difficult or expensive, since drilling down below eight kilometers is carried out by only a handful of teams worldwide, this kind of advance warning gives nations time to evacuate citizens, strengthen buildings, and even send in quick response teams who will be available immediately after a quake.

Nachman set up Terramoto this year, using money of his own. He will shortly receive a grant from the Office of the Chief Scientist, and is negotiating for further investment from the United Nations, and from venture capital companies. The company’s goal now is to build a demonstrator and place it on the Syrian-African fault line at an investment of $1 million.

“I’m sure this method will work,” says Nachman. “I believe wholeheartedly in this project.”


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