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There is a scientific use of those neat, unstable rocks, and they could be a lifesaver

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The precariously balanced rocks are not only among the most dramatic and eye-catching sights nature has to offer, but they are also hugely useful in identifying earthquake hazards in an area.

The instability that gives PBRs – an official term used by geologists – informs experts of the vibration and tremor that a particular area has experienced in the past. Any movements that are too heavy, and these rocks or rocks will collapse on their bodies.

By analyzing the fragility and lifespan of some PBRs in California, the researchers determined the upper limit of earthquake intensity that has occurred since the formation of the rock structures, and used this information to reduce the uncertainty in existing risk models for large earthquakes by 49 percent.

“Our new approach can help us identify the areas most likely to experience a major earthquake,” says geologist Anna Rudd, of Imperial College London in the United Kingdom.

“PBRs act like reverse seismographs by capturing a regional seismic history that we were nowhere close to seeing, and informing us of the upper limit of vibrations of previous earthquakes simply by non-inversion. By taking advantage of this, we provide uniquely valuable data on rare rates, earthquakes.” With great power. “

The new research included two phases. First, the researchers worked to determine the age of the PBR formations by dating the exposure to the cosmic surface, and counting the number of rare beryllium atoms within the rocks (formed by long-term exposure to cosmic rays).

Second, the researchers used a 3D modeling simulation to calculate the amount of vibration these rocks could withstand before falling. One of the findings of the study was that PBRs can be preserved in landscapes for twice as long as previously thought.

This information is an invaluable addition to earthquake risk models as it bridges some of the gaps in our knowledge prior to the existence of modern monitoring equipment – indicating earthquake activity as far back as a million years ago.

Risk models consist of a bewildering number of different factors and data points, from fault-line location to seismic activity over time. Solid records, such as those obtained from the new study, help to adjust those other factors with more precision.

Colored stickers were used to aid in 3D modeling. (Anna Rudd and Dylan Rudd, Imperial College London)

“We are now looking at PBRs near major earthquake faults like the San Andreas Fault near Los Angeles,” says Anna Rudd. “We are also looking at how to determine the data – be it fault slip rates or choice of equations of ground vibration – that skew the results in the original risk models.”

PBRs can form when soft rocks erode to leave harder rocks behind, or when retreating glaciers leave rocks behind in unnatural locations. There are many examples around the world, from the Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, to the Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona in the United States.

This wide coverage in terms of location means that researchers can feed PBRs into many earthquake risk models. Models can help determine future earthquake hazards for residential areas and sites that maintain major facilities, such as dams and nuclear power plants.

Thanks to new research, we now have a better idea of ​​how long the PBRs can stay, and exactly how much vibration it takes to displace them. All of this is useful information for assembling risk models, especially in situations where other sources of data may not be available, such as marine fault lines, which cannot be easily monitored.

“We are teetering on the brink of a scientific breakthrough in earthquake prediction,” says geologist Dylan Rudd of Imperial College London.

Our “rock clock” technologies have the potential to save huge costs in seismic engineering, and can be used to test and update site-specific risk estimates for earthquake-prone areas – particularly in coastal areas where seismic sources controlling marine faults are inherently more difficult to investigate.

The research has been published in AGU Advances.

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