Looking inside the Continents from Space: Insights into Earthquake Hazard and Crustal Deformation

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Civil Environmental and Geomatic Eng


As two tectonic plates move together or apart, any continent trapped between them deforms, causing major geological features such as mountain belts or sedimentary basins to develop. As the brittle, near-surface crust tries to accommodate the deformation, earthquakes occur on faults inside the earth. The need to understand how the continents deform, and where earthquakes will occur, is compelling - between 1.4 and 1.7 million people have died in earthquakes in the continental interiors since 1900.

We can measure the way the continents are actively deforming using satellites. GPS can provide very precise measurements of how individual points on the ground move, but such points are often sparsely distributed. Over the past two decades, satellites designed by the European Space Agency (ESA) have demonstrated the ability of satellite-borne radar to measure displacements of the earth's surface. The radar repeatedly sends out bursts of a microwave signal that scatters back from the surface and is measured when it returns to the spacecraft. We use differences in the radar returns acquired by the satellite at two different times to measure the displacement of that point over the intervening time interval. Displacements of a few millimeters or less can be measured in this way.

As the continental crust deforms, the rocks continue to bend, building up strain that will be released in future earthquakes. When assessing earthquake hazard, in addition to knowing where the faults are on which the earthquakes will occur, it is essential to know the rate at which this strain is growing. These rates are small, however, and not easy to measure using radar in the presence of noise caused by changes on the ground from which the radar scatters and in the properties of the atmosphere through which the radar signal passes. In addition, errors in our knowledge of the position of the satellites affect our measurements. Methods can be devised to counter these difficulties, but the opportunities to apply them has been limited with the current satellites by the irregular and infrequent acquisition of radar images over many parts of the seismic belts.

We are motivated to bring the efforts of a team of investigators to bear on these questions because of the planned launch by ESA in mid-to-late 2013 of Sentinel-1A, a new radar satellite. An identical partner, Sentinel-1B will be launched 18 months later. Each spacecraft will pass over a given point on the earth's surface every 6 days; once both are in orbit any point will be revisited every 3 days. This short time interval, plus the fact that observations will be made for every pass of the spacecraft and its position will be carefully controlled and well known, will mean a radical improvement in our ability to measure rates of motion and strain. By combining the measurements from all available satellite tracks, together with any GPS data available, we will be able to map in detail over large areas the rates at which strain is building up.

We plan to look at what happens inside the continents as they deform by using such observations to test and constrain physical models. Thus the displacements occurring in an earthquake measured by radar can be used to infer the movements that have taken place on the fault at depth. The way the earth's surface in the vicinity of an earthquake continues to move immediately after it tells us about the mechanical properties of the surrounding region, knowledge essential to understanding how the forces around a fault vary with time. On a larger scale, the spatial distribution of strain in the continents tells us about changes in the strength of the crust. With these constraints we can test competing hypotheses about how the continents deform and what are the major factors controlling where the deformation occurs.

Planned Impact

We have identified and engaged with a wide range of non-academic end users of our research, which will have wide-reaching economic and societal impact in several key areas:

1. Geospatial Service Providers.
The state-of-the-art, high-resolution deformation products that we will produce in this project have considerable commercial and societal value. We will use Sentinel-1 to provide near-real-time (rather than post-processed) deformation maps and time. Through the International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell (ISIC) we will actively engage with SMEs to develop and market targeted new geospatial services derived from our results, aimed at the end users in the public and private sector. Potential services could include real-time monitoring of landslides, volcanoes, and man-made subsidence. These impacts will be facilitated through existing links with ISIC and the National Centre for Earth Observation; NCEO aim to commit a member of their impact team to capitalise on the opportunities arising from this project.

2. Meteorological Agencies.
As a by-product, we will produce high-resolution maps of tropospheric path delay in near real time, which have the potential to be assimilated into numerical weather prediction (NWP) models. The data will improve knowledge of the spatial distribution of atmospheric water vapour, and the ability to forecast localised heavy rainfall events. We have engaged with the satellite applications group at the Met Office, which currently assimilates path delay measurements from GPS sites. Although the InSAR path delay maps are snapshots in time, they are effectively continuous in space, and so complement the data currently available from GPS.

3. Government Institutions responsible for earthquake hazard assessment.
One of the most significant outputs of our research will be improved earthquake hazard assessment for the Alpine-Himalayan Belt through the new strain-rate and fault maps of the region. This will have high societal value to government institutions responsible for earthquake hazard assessment. Several of the investigators on this project are also investigators on Earthquakes without Frontiers (EwF), a NERC/ESRC directed program aimed at Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards. Through this project we are already heavily engaged with a wide partnership of end users from across the entire Alpine-Himalayan Belt, including local, regional, and national governments and NGOs working on disaster risk reduction. We expect these organisations to use our new hazard map and will encourage this through the EwF partnership.

4. The Global Earthquake Model (GEM) and insurance industry.
GEM is a "global collaborative effort with the aim to provide organisations and people with tools and resources for transparent assessment of earthquake risk anywhere in the world" (www.globalquakemodel.org), funded through a partnership of public and private organisations, including the global insurance and re-insurance industry. Our high-resolution strain data from InSAR will inform the next generation of strain models within GEM. Furthermore, our fault-mapping work will feed directly into the efforts of GEM to identify active faults.

5. Public understanding of science.
Earthquakes and tectonics provide a compelling subject with which to engage the public in science. The investigators have a very strong track record in public outreach, regularly providing solicited and unsolicited interviews and articles for the national and international media.

6. Capacity building in developing countries.
The investigators have a strong track record of working with scientists from developing countries to help build capacity. This is particularly critical for work on seismic hazard as it is local scientists who have most influence on their governments and decision makers in times of seismic crisis and will be facilitated in this project through a funded International Opportunities Fund project.


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Description This grant is still on-going - the key findings so far relate to the way in which the Sentinel-1 space craft operates. The European Space Agency is very interested in the methods we are developing, which if successful, may be applied to several other of the Sentinel space vehicles.
Exploitation Route The approach may be used by ESA for multiple other space missions
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment

Description Space vehicle force modelling methods developed under these research grants have been applied to ballistic missile defence problems (DSTL) and we have been approached by NASA to apply these methods to deep space missions (principally Messenger, NASA's mission to Mercury)
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine
Impact Types Societal

Description Track custody at GEO
Amount $250,000 (USD)
Organisation US Air Force European Office of Air Force Research and Development 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2018
Title enhanced spacecraft force modelling algorithms and code 
Description Numerically stabilised and automated spacecraft force modelling tools which can be deployed on a variety of platforms 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The improvements to our force modelling capability have resulted in UCL being asked to contribute to next generation modelling approaches to the International Terrestrial Reference Frame - this is essentially the global coordinate system used to measure earthquakes, tectonics and global sea level change 
Description DSTL 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The application of our ongoing work on surface forces for space vehicles and space debris to understanding the way in which counter measures disperse from incoming ballistic missiles, with a view to developing next generation radar systems
Collaborator Contribution Modelling and analysis of counter measure dispersion and trajectories
Impact Modelling and analysis of counter measure dispersion and trajectories
Start Year 2014
Description European Office of Air Force Research and Development - track custody at GEO research programme 
Organisation European Office of Aerospace Research & Development (EOARD)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Ideas and models resulting from the ongoing study into orbit dynamics are about to be applied to the behaviour of geostationary satellites
Collaborator Contribution EOARD, along with DSTL, carried out facilitated discussions about problems related to understanding the behaviour of geostationary satellites on orbit
Impact Funding from EOARD to carry out a substantive programme of research
Start Year 2017
Description NATO lecture tour 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave an invited lecture series to several NATO countries (Germany, Turkey, Italy and the USA), paid for by NATO and building directly on several research projects funded by UK research councils
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Research visit, Goddard Space Flight Centre, NASA, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited visit to NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre to discuss future research programmes with UCL for the next five years
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016