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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Earth Sciences


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.


10 25 50

publication icon
Illsley-Kemp F (2018) Seismicity During Continental Breakup in the Red Sea Rift of Northern Afar in Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

Description 1) Eruption history of the East African Rift, showing link between regional and local stress fields and the geometry of eruption fissures (Wadge et al, 2016). 2) Influence of pre-existing faults on rift magmatism over a range of timescales (Lloyd et al, 2018). 3) Use of Sentinel data to measure a sustained pulse of uplift at a continental rift caldera (Lloyd et al, 2018), 4) Geomorphological studies of active fault systems in amagmatic rifts using TanDEM-X and Pleiades data (Hodge et al, 2018a,b, 2019), 4) Sentinel-1 study of the Zinave Mozambique earthquake, which revealed a 10 year long aftershock sequence following the 2006 Machaze earthquake (Lloyd et al, 2019) 5) Review paper combining geological and geophysical perspectives on strain rate measurements (Fagereng and Biggs, 2018).
Exploitation Route - Understanding of active tectonic and magmatic processes in a continental rift with implications for geothermal energy, seismic and volcanic hazard.
Sectors Education,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Observations of active deformation at volcanoes in Ethiopia have been provided to newly formed Ethiopian Working Group on Geohazards and have been used to raise awareness of geohazards in Ethiopia. Observations of fault systems in Malawi are being including in active fault maps for the Global Earthquake Model, and for regional hazard, risk and scenario maps through the EPSRC-GCRF project PREPARE
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Digital Environment: Dynamic Ground Motion Map of the UK
Amount £170,405 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S016104/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 02/2020
Description Making Satellite Volcano Deformation Analysis Accessible
Amount £127,312 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S013970/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 08/2020
Description PREPARE: Enhancing PREParedness for East African Countries through Seismic Resilience Engineering
Amount £1,381,845 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P028233/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 10/2020
Description RiftVolc (NERC Large Grant)
Amount £584,072 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/L01372X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2014 
End 09/2019
Description Geological Survey Department, Malawi 
Organisation Government of Malawi
Country Malawi 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Fieldwork and capacity buiilding activities on seismic resilience in Malawi.
Collaborator Contribution Fieldwork logistics and networking.
Impact Joint publications and capacity building events.
Start Year 2015