Earthquakes and tsunamis

Earthquakes and tsunamis

Earthquakes are the natural hazard that generates the largest number of human casualties in the modern society.  Likewise, it is estimated that they are responsible for about 35% of the economic losses generated by natural disasters. Tsunamis are among the natural hazards that can result in the largest number of victims per event. While the earthquakes that cause them cannot be predicted, it is possible to provide early warning about tsunamis if there is enough distance between the seismic source and the coast. To mitigate the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis, the JRC develops tools and methods to support efficient disaster management, from the early warning phase through to recovery and reconstruction. 

On the prevention side, the JRC studies the structural behaviour of buildings and other infrastructures under earthquakes, develops methodologies to increase the safety of buildings and contributes to the creation of European standards for the construction sector. The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) provides early warning to the first responders community, while the analysis of satellite images helps identify areas where interventions are most needed.

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Improving safety in construction

The JRC's European Laboratory for Structural Assessment is equipped with one of the largest Reaction Walls for testing the resistance of buildings against earthquakes.

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From early warning to recovery and reconstruction

The JRC develops integrated systems for risk analysis, situational awareness, early warning and collaborative decision-making to help strengthen the EU’s resilience to crises and disasters.

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Learning from natural disasters

The JRC participates in field missions and other activities related to intermational assistance and mitigation of the effects of natural disasters.

Field missions are organised in concerted collaboration with international partners, universities and national services in the affected countries and other Departments of the European Commission. The aim is to collect information on the performance of buildings and infrastructure, socio-economic aspects and the management of the disaster. Attention is given also to rural and less developed regions as well as to cultural heritage. Field data is integrated with information obtained through remote sensing techniques that combine pre-earthquake satellite images and post-earthquake aerial photos. The collected material is used to improve the design methods for new structures and the techniques for strengthening and retrofit, to draft guidelines for the construction of safe non-engineered houses and to assist the management of the post-event and reconstruction phase.

Tsunami assessment modelling system

The JRC has developed and operates the only worldwide automatic Tsunami alerting system. It can quickly calculate the estimated wave height and travel time and automatically send an alert message through the Global Disaster Alerts and Coordination System (GDACS).

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The JRC´s tsunami assessment modelling system includes four main components:

1) The Global Tsunami Scenario Database (GSD) is a set of 136 000 calculations performed using a theoretical model, with epicentres established around historical tsunami events. Calculations for earthquake magnitudes between 6.5 and 9.5 have been performed. The database provides a preliminary, immediate, estimate of tsunami consequences as soon as the real earthquake epicentre is known. The scenario database identifies the locations potentially affected as well as the predicted wave height.

2) The Tsunami Online Calculation System (OCS) uses the same model as the scenario database, but it is automatically initialised with the real earthquake parameters (epicentre and magnitude). The calculations start as soon as an earthquake with potential tsunami consequences is identified and the calculation time is in the order of 30–40 minutes.

3) The Tsunami Analysis Tool is a piece of software developed by the JRC to allow a proper analysis of Tsunami events in real time, during their occurrence, in order to give the possibility to quickly estimate the real potential consequences of a Tsunami; the objective is therefore to prepare to launch Warning Messages.. The software allows the direct comparison of scenario databases (GSD) or online calculations (OCS) with sea level measurements in real time though international channels.

4) The Tsunami Alerting Device (TAD) has been designed for installation in tsunami prone coastal areas. The TAD delivers warning messages to the population at risk in the quickest possible time. A prototype is currently operating in Setubal (Portugal). The TAD consists of a panel equipped with data receivers, a display, an alerting siren and a loudspeaker. It can be automatically activated by the GDACS system or can be connected with existing local sea level measurement systems. This allows the device to activate the alarm also in the case of dangerous waves of non-seismic origin such as those created by landslides.


Background information

Tsunamis are among the natural hazards that can result in the largest number of victims in single events. Only in recent years, Tsunamis caused more than 250 000 casualties in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and more than 25 000 in Japan in March 2011.
While the earthquakes that cause them cannot be predicted, it is possible to provide early warning about tsunamis if the distance between the seismic source and the coast is not too short. After the Indian Ocean disaster in 2004, the JRC has developed a system that uses sophisticated seismic and hydraulic modelling coupled with communication technologies to alert the humanitarian operators or Civil Protection bodies about tsunamis.
Today, the “official” Tsunami warning systems, developed in the frame of UNESCO-IOC (Integovernmental Oceanographic Commission) rely only on seismic signals and provide information on the arrival times of the tsunami wave along coastal areas. Other National Systems are more advanced: for example the Japanese national tsunami warning system relies on pre-calculated tsunami scenarios, allowing it to issue a first alert within 3 minutes of an earthquake that scores more than 6.5 on the Richter scale.

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