Earthquakes happen but where they may happen as well as when is a matter to be studied. Earthquakes similar in magnitude to the 2004 Sumatra earthquake could occur in an area beneath the Arabian Sea at the Makran subduction zone which is just south of Pakistan, according to recent research published in Geophysical Research Letters. The research was carried out by scientists from the University of Southampton based at the National Oceanography Center Southampton (NOCS), and the Pacific Geoscience Centre, Natural Resources Canada.
Makran is a semi-desert coastal strip in the south of Sindh and Balochistan, in Pakistan and Iran, along the coast of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. The 1945 Balochistan Earthquake occurred in British India at 5:26 PST on 28 November 1945. It was recorded with a magnitude of 8.1 on the moment magnitude scale.
The Balochistan earthquake had its epicenter 97.6 kilometers South-Southwest of Pasni in Balochistan. Additionally, the quake caused a 40-foot tsunami that caused damage along the Makran coastal region and resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 people.
The new study suggests that the risk from undersea earthquakes and associated tsunami in this area of the Western Indian Ocean — which could threaten the coastlines of Pakistan, Iran, Oman, India and potentially further afield — has been previously underestimated. The results highlight the need for further investigation of pre-historic earthquakes and should be fed into hazard assessment and planning for the region.
The Makran subduction zone has shown little earthquake activity since a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in 1945 and magnitude 7.3 in 1947. Because of its relatively low seismicity and limited recorded historic earthquakes it has often been considered incapable of generating major earthquakes.
Plate boundary faults at subduction zones are expected to be prone to rupture generating earthquakes at temperatures of between 150 and 450 °C. The scientists used this relationship to map out the area of the potential fault rupture zone beneath the Makran by calculating the temperatures where the plates meet. Larger fault rupture zones result in larger magnitude earthquakes.
"Thermal modelling suggests that the potential earthquake rupture zone extends a long way northward, to a width of up to 350 kilometers which is unusually wide relative to most other subduction zones," says Gemma Smith, lead author and PhD student at University of Southampton School of Ocean and Earth Science, which is based at NOCS.
The team also found that the thickness of the sediment on the subducting plate could be a contributing factor to the magnitude of an earthquake and tsunami there.
"If the sediments between the plates are too weak then they might not be strong enough to allow the strain between the two plates to build up," says Smith. "But here we see much thicker sediments than usual, which means the deeper sediments will be more compressed and warmer. The heat and pressure make the sediments stronger. This results in the shallowest part of the subduction zone fault being potentially capable of slipping during an earthquake."
For further information see Makran Earthquakes.
Makran Map image via University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science.