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Mapping Europe’s earthquake risk

The rubble of a building destroyed by the earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. © Shutterstock/Fotografiche
The rubble of a building destroyed by the earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. © Shutterstock/Fotografiche

The Balkan and Mediterranean countries, as well as Turkey, are all at higher risk of earthquakes than many other parts of Europe, according to a map produced by EU researchers.

Researchers at the EU-funded SHARE project have produced a map displaying which parts of Europe are most at risk from an earthquake, and it shows that Italy, the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are among the most exposed regions of the continent.

‘Europe has a long history of destructive earthquakes,’ said Professor Domenico Giardini, coordinator of the SHARE project. ‘We all remember the tragic events of Izmit (Turkey) in 1999 and L’Aquila (Italy) in 2009.’ In Izmit, a strong earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale killed 17 000 people, while in L’Aquila a moderate 5.9 magnitude quake killed more than 300 people and destroyed much of the city.

To produce the map, researchers from the SHARE project combined data from more than 30 000 European earthquakes with a magnitude larger than or equal to 3.5 on the Richter scale since the year 1 000, and factored in their damaging effects. To gather data they used data from the AHEAD interactive map of earthquakes in Europe.

They then cross-referenced this data with over 1 100 active faults in Europe, which have a combined length of 64 000 kilometres.

The European Seismic Hazard Map displays the ground motion expected to be reached or exceeded with a 10 % probability in 50 years. Blue colours indicate comparatively low hazard areas, yellow to orange colours indicate moderate hazard areas, and red colours indicate high hazard areas.© SHAREThe European Seismic Hazard Map. Blue colours indicate comparatively low hazard areas, yellow to orange colours indicate moderate hazard areas, and red colours indicate high hazard areas.© SHARE

All the information was combined on a single map that shows thick purple zones running through the areas of south-east Europe where earthquakes are more likely, and where they can cause the greatest damage to society. It shows the areas where there is a 10 % or larger probability of experiencing the mapped level of ground shaking within 50 years.

‘It is the first state-of-the-art reference hazard model for Europe,’ said Dr Artur Pinto, the head of the European Laboratory for Structural Assessment at the Joint Research Centre, the EU’s in-house science service, in Ispra, Italy. ‘It can be useful for future policies regarding different kinds of buildings and infrastructure such as dams, tall buildings or even bridges.’

However, the map also shows earthquake hotspots near Brussels in Belgium, Lisbon in Portugal, near Budapest in Hungary and along the Pyrenees mountain range. The hotspots near Brussels, Budapest and Lisbon are because a number of earthquakes have happened in the past, while the hotspot in the western Pyrenees is because of the geological make-up of the area, the project said.

Seismic hazard

‘Seismic hazard is not just about calculating the probability of an event occurring somewhere in Europe in a certain period of time,’ said Prof. Giardini.

‘Europe has a long history of destructive earthquakes.’

Professor Domenico Giardini, the coordinator of SHARE

‘In our project, seismic risk refers to the likelihood of damages and loss that seismic events can induce to our economic and human environment,’ he said. ‘A moderate earthquake in a densely populated part of Europe, or in an area that hosts critical infrastructures, like a pipeline, can have an enormous impact.’

This was examined in more detail by the EU-funded project SYNER-G, which developed an open-source software tool to analyse vulnerability and work out the social and economic impacts of earthquakes in specific urban areas, like the port of Thessaloniki in Greece, by the time it finished in 2013.

Part of this knowledge is now also being used by geologists, seismologists and engineers as part of the STREST project, which by the time it finishes in 2016 hopes to have developed a common way of evaluating the risk to critical infrastructure, and have identified the key buildings, bridges, roads and pipelines that would have the greatest impact on our society if they were damaged during an earthquake.

All SHARE products, data and results, are freely available and provided through the project website and the European Facility for Earthquake Hazard and Risk. The map shown in the figure can be ordered from the project website.

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