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Earthquakes of the Silk Road

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Sedgwick Club Conference 2019

Earthquakes are the primary source of information for understanding how tectonic plate motions are accommodated by populations of active faults. They are also a major threat to a large part of the world’s population, such that their scientific investigation is intrinsically linked to societal issues of hazard and vulnerability. Much of the world’s population lives in the continental interiors, where deformation is spread across very wide regions, and intervals between large earthquakes in one area are typically much longer than the 100 years of available instrumental data. The long recurrence intervals pose challenges for identification of active faults, and the small database of recent large earthquakes limits our understanding of fault rupture processes in such regions. The solution is to supplement the modern record through forensic investigation of historic and prehistoric events. In this talk I will describe our recent studies of some of the major earthquake disasters of the interior of Asia, starting from Xi’an in central China through to Anatolia. We start with the 1556 Huaxian earthquake – the most destructive earthquake of all time – and confirm that it is likely the largest known normal faulting earthquake.

Moving westwards, we examine the complex multi-fault ruptures of earthquakes that struck the northern Tien Shan in 1889 and 1911; these earthquakes are important in showing the ability of multiple short, geologically minor faults to rupture together in large magnitude events. Iran has a long record of destructive earthquakes, with many examples from recent decades that have been studied using the full range of modern techniques available to us. I focus here on the faults of the Caspian lowlands, where there is an absence of earthquakes in the historical record, and yet the landscape suggests the occurrence of recent surface rupturing. Finally, I end with the 2011 Van earthquake of eastern Turkey, whose complexity is instructive in highlighting the challenges faced in interpreting the historical record of earthquakes from their expression in the landscape.

Richard Walker is a Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge and has been at Oxford since 2004, first as a NERC post-doctoral fellow, then as a Royal Society University Research Fellow, before becoming a full time staff member in 2012. His research interests range from forensic investigations of individual earthquakes through to studies of the active tectonics of wide regions, and he currently has collaborative research programs across large parts of Central Asia. A particular focus of his recent work is in the study of the ruptures of major historic and prehistoric earthquakes, both to understand rupture processes in continental interiors, and to aid assessments of seismic hazard. In the period 2012-2018 this work was carried out within the ‘Earthquakes without Frontiers’ consortium, and is now the focus of a new Leverhulme Trust project ‘The Earthquake Ruptures of Iran and Central Asia’. As well as his work in active tectonics, he also maintains interests in past climatic and environmental changes in the arid lands of Iran, and in the geomorphic imprint of processes in the lower crust and mantle.

This talk is part of the Sedgwick Club talks series.

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