New Delhi: India plans to open its first research centre to predict earthquakes this year, but the institute will take at least five years before it can begin forecasting tremors accurately.
The National Centre for Seismological Research will be set up in Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, at an investment of Rs500 crore.
It is expected to bring together scientists from various other institutes, such as the National Geophysical Research Institute and the India Meteorological Department, and focus exclusively on predicting earthquakes.
“We expect to be able to predict earthquakes by 2015,” said Shailesh Nayak, secretary, ministry of earth sciences. He added that a lot of work on the subject was happening across the country; the institute is being set up to consolidate such research.
Predicting the location and timing of earthquakes is one of the toughest challenges of seismology.
Although geologists have monitored the various faultlines that run across India as well as the rate at which internal pressure builds up in them (to cause earthquakes), they haven’t developed systematic models to bet on specific tremors.
“We still don’t have good models to predict quakes,” said Naresh Kumar of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous research institute. “But we now have better observatory systems proposed to be in place. That should help predictions substantially.”
Even though India doesn’t see as many devastating earthquakes as some parts of the US or Japan, it has lost several thousand lives to earthquakes in the past century.
The most catastrophic earthquakes in recent years have been the January 2001 quake in Bhuj, Gujarat and the September 1993 quake in Latur, Maharashtra—both in western India.
But experts say north and northeast India have historically been most prone to quakes
The researchers’ first attempt would be to predict an earthquake in northwest India, as Mint earlier reported.
The government’s latest seismic zoning maps list Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and parts of Delhi as category 4 and 5—making them the most earthquake-prone regions in the country.
Since the 1970s, scientists have globally been mapping prominent earthquake-prone zones such as the San Andreas Fault, which runs across California, US, for unusual electromagnetic signals, or structural fissures and strains in the rock patterns.
Such signals are a sign that pressure, or vast reserves of heat and radiation, are bubbling up over time between tectonic plates that are continually moving and at various times may collide, diverge or slide against one another.
These energy vents begin to disturb the rocks that lie on these plates and leave a variety of signatures that are picked up by magnetometers or gravimeters—instruments used to measure changes in gravitational pull as well as magnetic field in the rocks.
Current theories say the Indian land mass, which rests on a plate called the Indo-Australian Plate, is sliding along another massive structure called the Asian Plate, which includes China and Japan.
The ensuing energy release from this friction not only created the Himalayas, but also spread along a line called the Main Central Thrust, a 2,500km long zone that stretches from Bhutan to well beyond India’s western border.
This line hosts several tectonic rocks, ones that are perched along one another. Due to their unsteady nature, they are subject to changing gravitational pulls and pressures and are most likely to trigger earthquakes.