Project combines geology and technology to generate a new approach to calculating earthquake hazard

A University of Plymouth academic has been awarded £1.1million to develop a new means of modelling all aspects of the earthquake cycle.

Dr Zoë Mildon, Lecturer in Earth Sciences, is among 101 researchers selected to receive one of UK Research and Innovation’s Future Leaders Fellowships.

Her four-year project will aim to unite the fields of geology, physics and computer science to generate a new multi-disciplinary way of calculating earthquake hazard.

This will enable her to generate synthetic earthquake simulations based on actual geological data, such as the shape of faults and their rate of movement, which can in turn be used to provide an all-encompassing picture of physical factors that trigger an earthquake and the devastation it may cause.

While the research – involving partners in the UK, France, Germany and Italy and an international risk insurance company – will not directly enable scientists to predict earthquakes, it will provide greater insight into the natural variability in the size, location and timing of damaging events on particular faults.

The research will also focus on studying complex earthquakes and sequences when multiple faults move and cause earthquakes in a short space of time.

Dr Mildon said:

“Unlike other natural hazards, advances in scientific understanding have not yet led to a reduction in fatalities from earthquakes, and earthquake forecasting is currently lagging behind that of other natural hazards. One of the major challenges we face is that we cannot simply wait for more earthquakes to happen in order to better understand them.
"As a result, we should develop 'geologically richer' numerical simulations to build synthetic earthquake records and seismic hazard models to improve our understanding of the fundamental processes that control earthquakes.

Dr Zoe Mildon next to a fault line in the Maiella National Park in southern Abruzzo, which last moved in 1706 (Credit Zoe Mildon)

"This project will do something that has not been attempted before, combining three different physics-based modelling approaches and testing the resulting model on several data-rich natural fault systems. It will generate a truly physical and geological model of a fault system and hugely enhance what we know about earthquakes, and how and when they occur.”

Dr Mildon has been studying earthquakes, mainly in central Italy, for several years and led a study published in June 2019 which suggested the cumulative stresses caused by historic earthquakes could provide some explanation as to why and where they occur.

This research will again focus on the central and southern Italian Apennines where well-exposed faults exist combined with a 700-year written record of damaging earthquakes.

It will also examine inactive fault systems off the coast of Norway, Australia and New Zealand, using cutting-edge seismic reflection technology to look at the 3D shape of these inactive faults that are buried under the sea floor and study how the shape and connectivity of faults has evolved with time.

Dr Mildon and her new team will then build a new physics-based model that covers three aspects of the earthquake cycle – the dynamic process of fault slip occurring over seconds to minutes during the earthquake, the resulting deformation and stress transfer onto surrounding faults, and the evolution and accumulation of tectonic stress between earthquakes – to create a rounded picture of both their individual effects and how they influence each other.

Dr Mildon is the third academic from the University to be awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship in 2020, following Dr Elsa Fouragnan and Dr Oli Tills.

Professor Jerry Roberts

Professor Jerry Roberts, Deputy Vice-Chancellor – Research and Enterprise, said:

“This is a fantastic personal success for Zoë and is due recognition of the impact of her research and the potential for it to be truly ground-breaking. It demonstrates that by uniting various fields of science it is possible to generate new ways of thinking about earthquake science and as a consequence transform lives on a global scale. Put together with Elsa and Oli’s successes in the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme earlier in the year, it is further evidence of the inspiring talent we have at the University of Plymouth.”

The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships initiative aims to support the creation of a new cohort of research and innovation leaders who will have links across different sectors and disciplines. Dr Mildon is one of 101 fellows, based at UK universities and businesses, who are being supported through a collective investment of £109 million.

Announcing the successful fellows at the Future Leaders Conference, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

“We are committed to building back better through research and innovation, and supporting our science superstars in every corner of the UK. By backing these inspirational Future Leaders Fellows, we will ensure that their brilliant ideas can be transferred straight from the lab into vital everyday products and services that will help to change all our lives for the better.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, added:

“Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with freedom and support to drive forward transformative new ideas and the opportunity to learn from peers right across the country. The fellows announced today illustrate how the UK continues to support and attract talented researchers and innovators across every discipline to our universities and businesses, with the potential to deliver change that can be felt across society and the economy."

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Our courses in this area are consistently ranked among the best in the world and we have researchers considered leaders in their field in chemistry, geography, geology and environmental science.

Find out more about the school