India may go 8km underground to predict quakes

India may go 8km underground to predict quakes

New Delhi: In what could rank among India’s most ambitious attempts to bolster its earthquake prediction capabilities, the ministry of earth sciences (MoES) is planning to place a network of seismic monitors 8km below ground level at Koyna, Maharashtra.

If the project is implemented, it could perhaps be among the deepest network of sensors lodged in the earth’s crust and, according to experts, be a valuable source of data that can be crunched to predict the intensity and occurrence of earthquakes greater than 6 units of magnitude on the Richter scale. The plan is still preliminary in nature and funds are yet to be tied up.

The Large Hadron Collider, at the French-Swiss border near Geneva, is less than 500m below ground level and India’s deepest mines at the Kolar Gold Fields are slightly more than 4km below.

Other than a network of sensors, there could be a full-fledged laboratory as well as an international team of scientists that will be involved in setting up the sensor network as well as conducting research in laboratories, said a top MoES official.

“It’s still an early-stage proposal, but will be quite ambitious and useful when it comes through, and is planned as an international collaboration," said Shailesh Nayak, secretary, MoES.

Even though India doesn’t see as many significant earthquakes as parts of the US or Japan, it has lost several thousand lives to earthquakes in the 20th century.

While India’s worst earthquakes in recent history are the ones in Bhuj, Gujarat, in January 2001 and the Latur, Maharashtra, temblor in September 1993, experts say that historically quakes have been far more frequent in the north and north-east.

The government’s latest seismic zoning maps list parts of Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and parts of Delhi as category 4 and 5 (on the Richter scale), making them the most earthquake-prone regions in the country.

Koyna, which has historically been associated with several earthquakes of varying degrees of seriousness, is also among the better understood seismic regions, with scientists in the past having actually successfully predicted tectonic activity there.

Though geologists have monitored the various fault lines that run across India as well as the rate at which internal pressure builds up in them (and triggering earthquakes), they haven’t developed systematic models to bet on specific tremors.

“We still don’t have good models to predict quakes," Naresh Kumar of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, an autonomous research institute, had said in an earlier interview with Mint. “But we now have better observatory systems proposed. That should help predictions substantially."

As Mint has earlier reported, 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 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, Hyderabad, and the India Meteorological Department, and focus exclusively on predicting earthquakes.