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Columbia Launches International Collaborative Research on Earthquake Risk in Northern Aegean

By Suzanne Trimel

(from left) Arthur Lerner-Lam, G. Michael Purdy and Dimitris Gemellos, Director of Press & Information Office, Greek Mission to the United Nations

Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, together with Greek, Turkish and Italian research collaborators, is organizing a major scientific investigation in the Northern Aegean region, aimed at giving scientists a clearer picture of the future earthquake risk along the North Anatolian fault, a major fault that runs from Turkey to the Greek mainland.

The research collaboration, which will be formally established during meetings in Greece from July 30 to August 2, 2001, is intended to shorten the time between the results of scientific investigation and their application to a pressing human problem.

Both Greece and Turkey share a long history of destructive earthquakes related to the North Anatolian fault system. During the 20th century, the fault has ruptured westward in a series of large earthquakes. The last one in 1999 reached into the eastern Marmara Sea and killed 17,000 people. Scientists now believe that these ruptures have reoriented the stress fields along this major fault, which may put parts of the region at greater risk for damaging earthquakes over the next 30 years.

The development of high-resolution sonar imaging technology at the world-renowned Lamont-Doherty over the last two years will allow the scientific team to produce a highly-detailed map of the portion of the fault below the Northern Aegean, showing the pattern of past ruptures and giving scientists new tools for predicting future seismic activity. Because of its history, the area presents a natural laboratory for investigations of earthquake patterns. To date, this portion of the fault has not been mapped in any more detail than necessary for standard navigation charts.

"We believe this partnership among research institutions in four countries is a significant step toward future international cooperation on an issue of such profound importance to the Greek and Turkish populations," said Dr. G. Michael Purdy, a geophysicist and director of Lamont-Doherty.

The initiative will put into practice the ideas embodied in the Center for Hazards and Risk Research, a new addition to Columbia's Earth Institute, the University's major initiative toward understanding Earth's processes and building a sustainable planet. Drawing upon the long history of earth science research at Lamont-Doherty, the new center brings basic earth scientists together with sociologists, political scientists, economists and others to assess the risk of natural hazards and to help communities around the world protect against their destructive consequences.

Dr. Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of the center, said that by engaging scientific and other experts in Greece and Turkey in a cooperative study of the earthquake risk in the northern Aegean region, "the academic partners can offer the best scientific and technological information available to help decision makers in those countries create a region more resilient to earthquake destruction."

"Our approach is to link basic science with international political development and economic resiliency in the face of earthquake hazards," said Lerner-Lam. "This initiative is really science in the service of international political and economic resiliency."

This latest initiative is a natural next step to collaborative research currently underway among Lamont scientists and colleagues in Greece, Turkey and Italy, which involves mapping the North Anatolian fault beneath the Marmara Sea in Turkey. "The long and short-term behavior of the North Anatolian fault in the Marmara and Aegean seas may be interdependent and thus learning about the fault in one area will help to understand it in another," said Lerner-Lam.

The partnership's goals and schedule will be refined through strategic meetings among the American, Greek, Turkish and Italian researchers at a conference from July 30 through August 1 at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. The Columbia researchers include Drs. Leonardo Seeber and Marie-Helene Cormier, who are renowned in the field of earthquake risk in the northern Aegean. They and their collaborators will discuss specific plans to survey the fault area lying beneath the northern Aegean to provide a detailed map of historic and pre-historic ruptures using the new imaging technology developed at Lamont-Doherty. Only a tiny fraction of the world's oceans have been mapped using this very precise technology.

The team also includes scientists from the Institute of Marine Geology in Bologna, Italy, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the University of Athens, the National Observatory of Athens, the Bogazici University Research Center for Disaster Management of Turkey, the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey, and Istanbul Technical University.

Following the conference in Thessaloniki, the scientists plan to meet in the Port of Piraeus outside Athens on August 2 to summarize their discussions aboard Lamont-Doherty's state-of-the-art research vessel, Maurice Ewing.

Map of the Aegean and the Marmara Seas. Red dots are earthquake epicenters

Published: Jul 11, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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