Feeling Quakey

A few minutes ago my house shook. It’s the first time I’ve very really felt an  earth tremour, although I did once have a door slam and only realise afterwards that a quake had caused it. That’s Melbourne really. However, we shouldn’t be too smug in our confidence that Melbourne is safe from damaging quakes.

Several years ago I interviewed Professor Mike Sandiford who said (from memory) that the Mornington Peninsular was riddled with small fault lines, and there was a fault under Melbourne’s Southeastern suburbs that could one day do some serious damage. He’s been studying evidence suggesting that much of south-eastern Australia was more geologically active not long before records began. His theory is we’ve been lucky so far, but it’s likely we’ll have to confront more and larger earthquakes around Melbourne and Adelaide at some point than we currently plan for.

Certainly Australia is never going to be comparable as a risk zone to Japan or New Zealand, but when you consider that Christchurch was considered fairly safe, with the fault line that caused the three recent earthquakes entirely unknown, you do have to worry a bit.

Presumably if one accepts Sandiford’s theory we should be requiring tougher building codes of all new buildings, but I’m sure it’s excessive to expect us to bolster existing buildings to a higher standard. That being the case, I imagine the only thing that can really be done to prepare for such an outcome is for the government to create a disaster fund, such as New Zealand had, putting aside money against the day it will be needed.

However, if we do that, earthquakes will be a pretty small part of any forward planning. It’s a safe bet we’ll suffer more losses (both in life and in property) from bushfires and floods than quakes.

As I’ve noted before, Sandiford is unusually aware and forthright in supporting the work of atmospheric scientists, rather than undermining them in the manner of Australia’s two higher profile geologists (one of whose research record even within geology is not a patch on Sandiford). He’s also doing a lot to fix the problem.

Being right in your own field of specialisation doesn’t mean you’re going to be right elsewhere, but it is a start, one that most of the climate change deniers can’t manage. A single quake, even one right where Sandiford indicated they were most likely, is hardly proof that he’s right. Nevertheless, it’s a piece of evidence and I intend to keep my eye out for more.

Update: Turns out the quake was actually in Korumburra, past even Melbourne’s South-eastern suburban sprawl. This fault line is well known, I believe, so it doesn’t provide any evidence for Sandiford’s theory, although it doesn’t undermine it either. Looks like I jumped the gun, but hey, it’s a blog. You wouldn’t want me to wait around until all the facts were in would you?

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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