Pulling together to face a common enemy

The devastating effects of a large earthquake hitting this volatile region will be felt by all sides.

muslime prayer 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
muslime prayer 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians might differ on many issues, but they face a common threat: all are situated near the infamous Dead Sea fault. An earthquake of a magnitude of seven or higher on the Richter scale could upset the already precarious balance in the Middle East, and cause serious damage in a region where many of the buildings are not built to standard. Only last Friday, many people around the country felt an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale, the strongest to hit Israel in recent years. The quake was centered in southern Lebanon, the Israeli Seismographic Institute said. It was felt mainly in coastal cities, including Haifa, Tel Aviv and Nahariya, but was also noticed in Jerusalem, Beersheba and elsewhere, and luckily only caused mild damage in some places. Over the past few months, several such medium quakes have hit Israel, raising alarm over experts' warnings that a much more powerful and damaging earthquake is long overdue. Stepping into the fold is Israeli researcher, Dr. Hillel Wust-Bloch of Tel Aviv University, who has developed unprecedented technology for earthquake research, and is now partnering with Palestinian and Jordanian scientists to study the area surrounding the ancient city of Jericho, located in the Jordan Valley just northwest of the Dead Sea. This particular location has significance for all three groups, and is also vulnerable to earthquakes by virtue of being near the Dead Sea fault. "We know the area has a very long history of destructive earthquakes," Wust-Bloch told The Jerusalem Post. Wust-Bloch believes that this is the first time Israeli and Palestinian researchers in the field of earth sciences have worked together without mediation by a third party, such as the UN. "We decided to start this Jericho project because we have a common scientific interest and because we're friends," he says. Wust-Bloch has been working with Jordanian researchers for six years on various projects. His partnership with a Palestinian researcher from Nablus began only recently, having been impeded by security issues. Even now, Wust-Bloch, seeking to protect his research colleagues from a backlash in their own countries by those who oppose partnerships with Israelis, will not name them. The unusual partnership utilizes a unique technology. Wust-Bloch and a colleague in Germany have developed a method of detecting earthquakes as tiny as magnitude -3 on the Richter scale, unlike the conventional method, which can only detect earthquakes of magnitude 2 or more. Detecting such small earthquakes, Wust-Bloch explains, helps determine which areas are most susceptible to large earthquakes. Areas that periodically release seismic tension through small earthquakes may be less likely to experience a catastrophically big one, though Wust-Bloch stresses that it's impossible to make any definitive predictions. The Dead Sea fault is comprised of several segments, and part of Wust-Bloch's work is to determine which of the segments are active, as well as to measure the extent of their activity. By discovering which areas are most problematic, Wust-Bloch and his colleagues are creating a hazard map of the region, a process he refers to as "Active Fault Mapping." Wust-Bloch's Palestinian research partner is an expert in integrating seismic hazard maps with land-use planning, and he will use the data acquired in their research to help decide where in the region to construct residential and industrial buildings. Wust-Bloch also hopes that such a map will benefit the Palestinian economy, since foreign businesses will feel more secure investing in the region if they have an understanding of the risks. "Companies like Intel won't invest a single dollar in the Jericho region unless the seismic hazard is properly assessed," he says. Developing the expertise of scientists in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan will increase the number of scientists in the Middle East trained in the field. Wust-Bloch remarks that right now, scientists there have few job opportunities, and are forced after graduating from university to take jobs overseas. "This project helps, on very small scale, to reverse the 'brain drain,'" observes Wust-Bloch. "It allows us to bring back a few people, such as Jordanians who were trained overseas. It's very nice to see that they can come back to the area - they're good scientists." If the research results are to be implemented in building plans, governments must cooperate. In this respect, Wust-Bloch believes, the scientists' cultural identity is essential. "When we present these hazard maps to the government or local authority, we must be able to present them in a way that they understand, otherwise you haven't done anything. It's very important that these top scientists can communicate with their own government." In southern California, similar research into weak seismicity has been conducted by drilling holes deep into the ground. Wust-Bloch's method is much easier, involving a series of portable instruments that identify the areas' seismicity. "What I do is similar to a doctor going with his very precise stethoscope along the fault," explains Wust-Bloch. "I try to feel the 'heartbeat' of different segments of the fault zone in order to understand how it works." One of Wust-Bloch's primary goals in his research is to promote effective measures against earthquake casualties. It would be impossible for the government to retrofit all the country's buildings, so narrowing down problem areas is a key concern. "We're very worried about natural hazards for the population," affirms Wust-Bloch. "We try to give decision-makers and planners tools to assess what can happen. We can build some scenarios and tell what is more likely and what is less likely, though we can't predict." Israel only has about 18 years' worth of seismographic data, which Wust-Bloch points out is not very much, given the fact that this data only includes large seismic events. Recording smaller events speeds up the research process, because there are many more small earthquakes than there are big ones. "As we lower the threshold of detection, we catch a lot of smaller events," explains Wust-Bloch. "Each magnitude you go down, there are 10 more events." This means that if 100 earthquakes in a magnitude of 2 occur in a five-year period, there will be 1,000 at a magnitude of 1. With pressing security matters at stake, Wust-Bloch shares what motivates him and his colleagues the most. "We're all in my age group, and have young kids, but are not grandparents yet," says Wust-Bloch. "We're all doing this for our own kids."