As Europeans become increasingly concerned about potential earthquakes, scientists must improve earthquake early warning systems and hazard communication — especially for business.
By Pablo Salucci, Science writer (@psalucci)
Citation: Salucci, P., 2021, European companies get help prepping for the next earthquake, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.182
Earthquakes cause the highest number of fatalities compared to all other natural hazards in Europe. Only severe storms cause more economic losses. Between 2006 and 2015, 21 earthquake-related disasters in Europe alone resulted in 1,049 deaths, caused more than $21 billion (USD) in financial losses, and affected 284,000 Europeans, according to TURNkey, a research consortium that aims to reduce future human and economic losses caused by earthquakes in Europe.
“As a result of public awareness campaigns, business organizations in Europe are increasingly aware of earthquake risks,” says Femke Mulder, a TURNkey researcher and specialist in Disaster and Humanitarian Studies at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. She and her colleagues focus on how earthquake early warning combined with operational earthquake forecasting can help companies prepare for future earthquakes.
Forecasting shaking and losses
Earthquake early warning systems have evolved rapidly thanks to technology and advances in understanding the physical complexity of earthquakes. These systems include seismic instruments that communicate in near real time with computers equipped to rapidly process data. Sophisticated algorithms on these computers calculate information about the earthquake — like location and magnitude — within seconds, which helps forecast ground-shaking intensity in the region around the rupture. Then, the shaking intensity forecast must be issued to the public or other end users in large, urbanized areas before they experience any intense shaking that might cause damage. Earthquake early warning ideally provides automatic alerts tens of seconds before the arrival of damaging seismic waves, which, for businesses, can help limit injury and damage to critical systems.
Operational earthquake forecasting is not the same as earthquake early warning. Operational earthquake forecasting “provides hazard and risk information before the main earthquake event,” noted Mulder in a video presented with an abstract at the European Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in April. Companies that engage in operational earthquake forecasting periodically update their information on earthquake hazards, which allows them to better plan for employee safety and potential business interruptions. These companies can also jointly plan with business partners who engage in similar forecasting.
“Our goal is to assess how operational earthquake forecasting and early warning can contribute most effectively to business continuity planning and disaster management,” Mulder said. Together, these systems can improve earthquake preparedness for both businesses and critical infrastructure providers by ensuring minimal down time.
Rapid response to earthquakes
“Rapid response to earthquakes,” a notation TURNkey uses to mean combining near-real-time estimates of both ground movement and potential losses, is another step to help in resilience preparation as it helps businesses quickly determine short-term responses. TURNkey’s cloud-based computer system can display the results of algorithms for operational earthquake forecasting, earthquake early warning, and rapid response to earthquakes, according to the TURNkey website. The goal is to ensure that stakeholders know which initial actions they need to take.
“Platforms like these … educate and effectively communicate the probabilities and risks,” says Cindy Mora-Stock, a postdoctoral research associate at Western University in Ontario, Canada. She also points out that these systems are not sufficient by themselves — education about risk and probabilities is essential. “In the case of companies,” says Mora-Stock, “whoever makes the decision [must know] what to do with that information.” For example, she says, someone working in a factory must know if cutting off the gas supply in the event of an earthquake is necessary.
Varying levels of preparation
Rapid response to earthquakes “implies coordination between different responders to an earthquake event,” says Mulder. However, how different countries manage risk varies, as does risk management within a single country, she says.
One of the reasons for differences in how countries prepare is that each faces a different hazard. For example, in the seismically active Campania region of southern Italy, home to large cities like Naples, earthquake early warning has advanced to real-time testing. In countries like Iceland, “the threat of major earthquakes and hazard events are always present and expected,” Mulder says, so monitoring and risk management is advanced compared to less seismically active European countries. In countries like the Netherlands, she says, where there’s far less natural seismicity, “concern arises from a series of low-level earthquakes” caused by induced seismicity. Frequently, she adds, companies and governments increase their level of preparation only after an earthquake reminds them to do so.
Facing upcoming earthquakes requires recognizing seismic risks present in each territory. The challenges of the coming years lie in integrating systems between countries, and the timely delivery of information.
How TURNkey helps businesses
“What companies have in common is that they don’t systematically update earthquake hazard and risk information in their preparedness approach, limiting business continuity in the event of an earthquake,” says Mulder. She and her colleagues at TURNkey sit down with businesses and discuss what is needed — and what is possible — from an engineering perspective. In the event of an earthquake above a projected shaking threshold, TURNkey, could, for example, facilitate suspending gas supplies, opening elevator doors automatically, or forcing trains to decelerate.
By helping companies understand their risk, TURNkey helps them regularly evaluate their processes and protocols and, Mora-Stock says, allows them to update their response plans to seismic hazards.
Mulder, F., Morga, M., and Jones, K.: Insights for Business Centric Earthquake Early Warning and Operational Forecasting Systems, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-12856, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu21-12856, 2021.
Velazquez, O., Pescaroli, G., Cremen, G., & Galasso, C. (2020). A Review of the Technical and Socio-Organizational Components of Earthquake Early Warning Systems. Frontiers in Earth Science, 8, 445.