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Flows project

CNR-Ismar involved in study on geological hazards in southern European seas

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Flows project

Geoscientists from across Europe and various fields of expertise recently met in Heraklion, Crete (2 - 4 Mar. 2016) to discuss future collaborations that will advance our knowledge on geological hazards, such as earthquakes, in the southern European seas. The choice of Crete as a meeting place is logical for such a meeting given that this island was struck in 365 AD by the strongest known earthquake in European history (estimated magnitude 8.5), which caused a major tsunami in the Eastern Mediterranean. The scientists work on complementary aspects of earthquake-related disciplines and met to discuss future projects that will help improve the ability to understand and predict future earthquakes.

Representing 17 countries, from diverse backgrounds (geology, seismology, geochemistry, microbiology), the scientists work in the framework of FLOWS, a European research network funded through the Cooperation of Science and Technology (COST) program. More specifically, the scientists involved seek to understand how fluids circulating in large fractures within the Earth’s crust control how faults move, e.g., through slow creeping or sudden rupture causing earthquakes. These earthquakes can in turn trigger other geological phenomena, such as tsunamis and submarine landslides. Fluid flow that is triggered by earthquakes can moreover cause the transport of chemicals, such as hydrogen and methane gas, from the Earth’s interior to the seafloor, where a high biomass of microorganisms feeds on these gasses as energy sources.

Currently, the scientific understanding of how earthquakes and fluid flow are coupled is still in its infancy. Yet, such an understanding would of tremendous societal relevance. The measurement of fluid flow in regions of the seafloor that are prone to experiencing strong earthquakes, such as transform faults near seafloor spreading zones, may provide insights into seismic activity deep below. In the past, increases in fluid flow have been reported from similar environments on land in the days and weeks leading up to major earthquakes. Similarly, the extent to which earthquake-driven emissions of gasses, such as methane, are important in the global carbon cycle and global climate, or in forming the foundation to food webs in the deep sea is unknown. The FLOWS network offers great hope that this will change in years to come. By bringing together leading scientists from different fields of earthquake-related sciences, and thereby stimulating cross-disciplinary discussions and collaborations, the hope is high that traditional barriers between the different geoscientific fields can be overcome and an integrated understanding of the main drivers and ecological consequences of earthquakes achieved. Already, the multidisciplinary approach used by the FLOWS community, has been used to produce an inventory of the most hazard-prone geological areas and to propose innovative techniques for monitoring seismic activity and fluid flow at and below the seafloor.

The FLOWS effort is concentrated along a belt, which runs from northwestern Turkey (Sea of Marmara and the North Anatolian Fault) and the east Mediterranean (Cyprus arc and Dead Sea Fault) to the central Mediterranean (Hellenic and Calabrian arcs) and the Atlantic coasts of Europe, just outside Gibraltar (the Rif - Betic Arc). Because the focus of the project is on studying fluid circulation, the diffusion of “extreme” life forms living at high temperatures and pressures in the Earth’s crust through the network of tectonic fractures is among the most fascinating topics addressed by the FLOWS specialists. Monitoring of key variables, such as seismicity, quantity and quality of fluids flowing into and out of the crust through the effect of pressure changes due to tectonic stresses are considered important steps forward towards better anticipating future earthquakes.

Preliminary results of the project are encouraging, but an important goal will be to translate theoretical knowledge into practical outcomes, such as the mitigation of geological risks in tectonically active areas. This next phase will require coordination at the EU level, and further funding to promote technological progress towards “early warning” strategies, the ultimate goal of this project, which can be tested in tectonically well-characterized regions, such as the Sea of Marmara.

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