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Issue 476, 4 February 2002

Leeds scientists discover Ethiopia suffers twelve earthquakes a day

Braving hyenas, Kalashnikovs and innumerable punctures may not be an average day for most scientists, but for a team from Leeds who have begun a major study in Ethiopia, this was par for the course in a part of the world, which, they discovered, experiences up to 12 earthquakes a day.

Earth sciences lecturer Graham Stuart and PhD student Ian Bastow spent two months deploying seismometers over 250 square kilometres in Ethiopia to record earthquake activity across the region.

Many hands make light work – help to install the equipment (above)

Dr Stuart explains: "Only the larger earthquakes are felt as minor tremors by the local people, the majority are only dectectable by our sensitive equipment. There haven't been many instruments there before, so these findings are new."

The scientists' work will also benefit the country, by identifying geothermal fields in the Rift which might in the future be used for energy production, and by assessing earthquake and volcanic risk.

Ian Bastow will also be helping the British Council distribute books to schools in the region, when he returns to check readings every two to three months.

Analysis of the signals will provide an image of the area to a depth of 100km giving a unique 3D picture of the continental rift system, as it splits apart before the creation of a new ocean.

Ethiopia is at a triple junction where the slowly widening ocean basins of the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet with one of the major geological features on the Earth's surface – the East African Rift Valley. It is one of the few places on Earth where continents are being split apart by the slow creep of rocks at hundreds of kilometres depth.

The instruments were placed in school compounds to protect against wild animals and vandalism, although this security measure didn't prevent one station from suffering a hyena attack severing the power cables. The seismometers were buried inside oil drums at a depth of one metre and are powered by solar panels (see picture right).

Dr Stuart said: "The schools were always involved – the caretakers helped us dig the hole to earn some money and many of the children helped as well. We'd explain the study, and get them to jump up and down to simulate an earthquake. Some of the schools had thousands of pupils, but very little material to work with."

"All in all, it was quite an eventful trip. We were a bit alarmed at one point on hearing automatic rifle fire, but it turned out to be some local Afar tribesmen celebrating the birth of a son. The number of blow-outs and other minor vehicle problems certainly hampered our progress but on the plus side our four-wheel drive motor mechanic skills were certainly improved over the course of the trip.

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