Interview | Seismology and seismic hazard assessement - Interview with Claus Milkereit

Dr. Claus Milkereit (photo: GFZ).
Group photo from the training course "Seismology and Seismic Hazard Assessment" 2019 (photo: D. Kroll, GFZ).

From 12 August to 6 September the training course "Seismology and Seismic Hazard Assessment" takes place at GFZ. Claus Milkereit  leads the course and reports on the course content, challenges, and the development of earthquake monitoring.

What do you teach people?

We teach them how to evaluate earthquakes, how to create earthquake catalogues and how to use them in risk assessment.

We teach the whole range of seismology: from earthquake recording and interpretation to forecasting. At GFZ, we have a regular staff of teachers, and this year we are also inviting experts from Italy, England and Norway, for example, to support us.

However, as is often assumed, there is no earthquake prediction.

Exactly. It is not yet possible to determine the time of a future earthquake. "Foresight" means that we try to predict the strength of a possible earthquake for a particular region.

Who takes part in the courses?

Anybody can apply from countries where there is no formal geophysical or seismological training. They must have at least a bachelor's degree, be enrolled at a university or work with an agency responsible for earthquake monitoring in their country.

Out of 205 applications this year, 26 participants were selected to be teached for four weeks. Since as many countries as possible should benefit, the participants come from many different countries.

The course takes place annually, alternately on the Telegrafenberg in Potsdam and abroad.

How do you decide where to go?

The country should be earthquake-prone and thus benefit directly from a course. Our thematic focus depends on the conditions in a country, which is also an important factor. In addition, there should be no security concerns for the country. The final decision is with the selection committee.

For the course in 2020, we already have invitations from four institutes in Argentina, Ecuador, Trinidad and Cuba.

Why doesn't the course simply take place in Potsdam every year?

The advantage for us on site is that we can better understand where the problems are. We understand what support is needed, for example to ensure that the software is used.

But above all, the courses abroad focus on the special natural conditions in the host country which set the thematic focus of a course. We always invite teachers from the host country to talk about the local specific characteristics.

What are the conditions that you use to align your content to?

If, for example, earthquakes in a country are often accompanied by landslides or mudslides, we concentrate on this context. In Latin American countries or Indonesia, the link between earthquakes and volcanic eruptions is a big issue. During the course in Myanmar, we included the topic Tsunami Early Warning System.

In 2018 we were in Ghana. At first you wouldn't even think about an earthquake there. But if you look at the historical records, there were strong earthquakes in the 1930s and 1960s. There we taught how to deal with low frequency earthquake hazards.

This also applies to Germany: although the probability of an earthquake is low, earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.5 may well occur in the Cologne area, with possible damage running into millions. The threat is then not in the minds of the population, but the institutions must keep an eye on it.

Will the participants be able to monitor earthquakes in their countries?

We can only set a starting point with our course. But people are learning how to set up and operate an earthquake monitoring system in the long term.

To calculate the vulnerability and potential impact of an earthquake on a region or country, we need an earthquake catalogue for that region. It can't be compiled within a year, not even within ten years. The longer the period for which earthquake activity is known in a region, the better the earthquake risk can be calculated.

This not only requires monitoring of current earthquakes, but also as much information as possible from the past. For example, the knowledge that there have been at least three earthquakes of magnitude seven in the last three hundred years. This information can perhaps be obtained from historical documents, such as records from monasteries, archaeological excavations or geological surveys.

There are global earthquake monitoring systems such as the GFZ GEOFON network. Are they too "coarse meshed" for regional monitoring?

Right. Worldwide networks like the GEOFON can detect earthquakes with a magnitude of 4 or 5. But what hapens below that? This is where the countries themselves have to take action and build seismic networks. They can, of course, use the global data of the GEOFON network but have to integrate their own regional data.

In the course we show: You can rely on the GEOFON network - the GEOFON scientists also teach in the course - and use the real-time data analysis, but build your own seismic stations in your countries.

If new local networks are installed in a country, will they be integrated into the GEOFON network?

Yes, we have already been able to integrate several stations into the network so that more data can be transmitted in real time. At previous courses in Myanmar and Ghana, we had the opportunity to integrate new technologies into existing networks and thus improve data transmission.

Do you evaluate how successfully the work in the countries of the former participants continues?

Yes, we evaluated the courses in 2012 and one of the results was that many former participants would like to continue working with us.

As a result of the positive evaluation, a new funding programme of the Federal Foreign Office has been set up, through which former participants can apply for funds to come to GFZ. A training course is a training course. You go home and think that you have understood everything, and then you realize that there is still a gap in your understanding. Now alumni can visit us at GFZ with their own data and questions. We ourselves are surprised at the response we receive and are very enthusiastic about it.

The first participants are now in responsible positions and send their own people back to the training courses to maintain contacts and get to know GFZ. So the courses are also a „springboard“ for people's careers.

How is the course financed?

GFZ finances the travel expenses of the teachers and the computer infrastructure. We also cover part of the costs of the participants.

We are supported by the Federal Foreign Office, Department for Humanitarian Aid with the argument that training is better than taking action after a disaster. They bear the other share of costs of the participants.

How did the courses start?

In the 1980s, the United Nations realised that in many countries nothing is known about the local earthquake risk. They approached experts of the GDR, at the Central Institute of Earth Physics, ZIPE, from which the GFZ later emerged: "You are the experts both in the field of earthquake monitoring and in the field of risk assessment. Can you pass on this knowledge?“ The former ZIPE and then GFZ scientists Gottfried Grünthal and Peter Bormann started their first courses in 1985. I took over the leadership in 2004/2005.

How have the monitoring of earthquakes and the possibility of risk assessment changed since then?

At the beginning of the 1990s, GFZ had the idea of a global network for earthquake monitoring. Thanks to new techniques in data transmission, the GEOFON system was developed, which can provide data in quasi-real time. New technologies and software solutions were developed for this purpose. In 2004, SeisComp was developed as a quasi-standard software that can be used to evaluate global and local data in real time. In my opinion this was one of the milestones.

Scientists usually don't have time pressure. They can also deal with quakes five or fifty years in the past. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 changed that.

Of course, there are still seismologists who deal with individual earthquakes in detail and derive insights into the physics of earthquakes so that an earthquake prediction may be possible at some point.

But with the new possibilities of real-time monitoring, GFZ now offers a product that is in demand worldwide and where we are the global leaders. This of course gives us an immediate responsibility to further improve the system and make it available. Even though the long-term monitoring of earthquakes is primarily a government task.

In which country would you like to hold a future course?

We would like to go, for example, to Egypt and support the development of tsunami monitoring for the Mediterranean. This requires seismic stations in northern Africa. So far, this has failed because countries like Egypt or Algeria do not want to share their own data, or a country like Libya has so many other problems that seismic monitoring is currently out of the question there.

Tunisia was open, but has only defect seismic stations and would need support. Morocco has set up the Western Mediterranean Network, which could be integrated into a tsunami early warning system in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This was one of the reasons why the course was held in Morocco in 2012.

A tsunami early warning system like that can only be set up in an international network. Germany itself is not affected and cannot introduce any relevant stations. However, we at GFZ could contribute our expertise and make the GEOFON data available.

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