As Australians rallied to help their New Zealand neighbours during the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, few realised that we also face the risk of a similar event.
Victoria has among the highest frequency of earthquakes in Australia, and at some point in the future will experience an earthquake of similar strength to the recent magnitude 6.1 Christchurch quake, according to Associate Professor Tim Rawling from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Earth Sciences.
To reduce the impact of an earthquake on Victorian lives and infrastructure, Associate Professor Rawling is developing a ‘Victorian Earthquake Risk Map’ with colleagues Professor Mike Sandiford and Gary Gibson (both from the School of Earth Sciences).
To create the map, the team will use Geographic Information System (GIS) assessments of Victoria‘s geology including fault lines and earthquakes to summarise hazards in Victoria. This will be overlaid with physical structures such as buildings, roads and powerlines to indicate earthquake vulnerability and risk.
“In Victoria we currently have an incomplete understanding of the potential earthquake-related risks including ground liquification (where the soil structure is changed by the shaking and can begin to flow), landslide and damage to infrastructure such as gas pipelines or power supply networks,” Associate Professor Rawling says.
“From the map we will be able to assess hazards and model the impact of different earthquake scenarios. This will form the basis of a framework for disaster management policy and planning to better design energy, commercial and housing projects.
“Because of the lower earthquake building standards in Victoria compared with New Zealand, the amount of damage that can be expected from a moderate or large Victorian earthquake will be considerably greater than in a comparably located event in New Zealand, such as the Christchurch earthquake which killed 182 people and caused tens of billions of NZ dollars in damage.”
In contrast with quakes on the edge of tectonic plates, continental earthquakes such as those experienced in Victoria are infrequent and shallow, but they can have a significant impact on human structures and cause great loss of life from collapsing buildings.
“As more is known about earthquake hazards, and about building vulnerability, engineers will be able to optimise building design to minimise earthquake damage,” Associate Professor Rawling says.
“Many of us recall the impact of the Longford Gas Plant Explosion in 1998, with much of Victoria left without gas for 19 days. A significant quake in Gippsland could wipe out gas and electricity supply as well as telecommunications, making the earthquake risk map important for preventing damage to important infrastructure.”
The project will also be used to inform emerging energy industries such as geothermal and carbon geosequestration. These industries utilise techniques that involve injecting fluids into Earth’s crust which can create small fractures, so understanding the tectonic stress levels and background earthquake activity is essential.
The first stage of fieldwork in the project will soon begin in Gippsland. The team will place seismometers up to two kilometres deep in decommissioned bore-holes to “listen” to the activity in Earth’s crust.
Like the lessons learned from Christchurch, NZ, the recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission pointed to the need for more reliable information for affected communities and emergency response teams.
To address this problem, members of the Melbourne School of Engineering have joined with other key researchers and Government bodies to create better data sources for monitoring and predicting the development of catastrophic bushfire events. Working as a truly multi-disciplinary team, University of Melbourne staff have developed and trialled innovative wireless environmental sensor systems that will result in world-leading capabilities for bushfire situational awareness.
Over the past 12 months a trial conducted in Olinda State Forest, has addressed the question “What information is needed to make better decisions during a bushfire crisis?” One key factor in bushfire propagation is the state of the forest: the amount and quality of the fuel. To determine this, a network of sensors is being built that provides information about the forest microclimate. For example, in addition to the information already provided by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) indications about spikes in temperature and data on soil moisture, this network offers the potential of spatially fine detailed fuel and weather information to be integrated with a bushfire prediction model such as Phoenix RapidFire for fire propagation modelling and prediction.
Professor William Moran from the Defence Science Institute explains that in an emergency situation such as a bushfire, critical decision-making is negotiated in a collaborative and integrated way.
“But what is needed is the greatest level of information possible and our sensors reading the changes in environmental conditions could make a difference to response, evacuation and recovery times,” he says.
“This work has been made possible by the close collaboration of the University of Melbourne Forestry department at Creswick, IBM, the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner (OFSC) and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). More importantly, we are keen to work with local communities as we see them as an important ‘sensor’ in delivering robust information capabilities.
“Fusion of all available information is central to our thinking. IBM is also a key contributor to this effort, providing the data streaming infrastructure that permits fusion and analysis of data streams from many widely distributed sources. In addition, we are collaborating with Dr Larry Smarr and his staff at Calit2 at the University of California, San Diego. Southern California faces similar problems to Victoria and Calit2 has been responsible for the development of a sophisticated, high-speed data network there, which detects bushfires.”
Though still early days, the environmental monitoring capabilities of these wireless sensor networks are promising and point to the provision and use of robust data management with additional environmental applications.
“By approaching disaster management as a whole problem, we can begin to deliver systems and solutions that are agnostic to the type of disaster. We believe this sensor technology can be extended to other test areas in the future, and are already considering the problems of flood prediction and monitoring,” adds Dr Allison Kealy, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering.
Associate Professor Fiona Haines from Social and Political Sciences discuss the ability of risk management strategies to really protect us in the Up Close podcast “Delusions of certainty: regulation through an ethical lens.”