New Earthquake Assessments Available to Strengthen Preparedness in Europe

EFEHR Earthquake risk describes the estimated economic and humanitarian consequences of potential earthquakes.

During the 20th century, earthquakes in Europe accounted for more than 200,000 deaths and over 250 billion Euros in losses. Comprehensive earthquake hazard and risk assessments are crucial to reducing the effects of catastrophic earthquakes because earthquakes cannot be prevented nor precisely predicted.

An international team of European seismologists, geologists, and engineers, with leading support of members from the Swiss Seismological Service and the Group of Seismology and Geodynamics at ETH Zurich has; therefore, revised the earthquake hazard model that has existed since 2013 and created a first earthquake risk model for the whole of Europe.

The 2020 European Seismic Hazard and Risk Models offer comparable information on the spatial distribution of expected levels of ground shaking due to earthquakes, their frequency as well as their potential impact on the built environment and on people’s sense of wellbeing.

The newly released update of the earthquake hazard model and the first earthquake risk model for Europe are the basis for establishing mitigation measures and making communities more resilient. They significantly improve the understanding of where strong shaking is most likely to occur and the potential effects of future earthquakes in Europe.

To this aim, all underlying datasets have been updated and harmonised – a complex undertaking given the vast amount of data and highly diverse tectonic settings in Europe. Such an approach is crucial to establish effective transnational disaster mitigation strategies that support the definition of insurance policies or up-to-date building codes at a European level and at national levels.

Open access is provided to both, the European Seismic Hazard and Risk Models, including various initial components such as input datasets.

Improved seismic hazard model

Earthquake hazard describes potential ground shaking due to future earthquakes and is based on knowledge about past earthquakes, geology, tectonics, and local site conditions at any given location across Europe.

The advanced datasets incorporated into the new version of the model have led to a more comprehensive assessment of the earthquake hazard across Europe. In consequence, ground shaking estimates have been adjusted, resulting in lower estimates in most parts of Europe, compared to the 2013 model, and in the case of Switzerland closer to the national model. With the exception of some regions in western Turkey, Greece, Albania, Romania, southern Spain, and southern Portugal where higher ground shaking estimates are observed. The updated model also confirms that Turkey, Greece, Albania, Italy, and Romania are the countries with the highest earthquake hazard in Europe, followed by the other Balkan countries. But even in regions with low or moderate ground shaking estimates, damaging earthquakes can occur at any time.

Furthermore, specific hazard maps from Europe’s updated earthquake hazard model will serve for the first time as an informative annex for the second generation of the Eurocode 8 (European standards related to construction). Eurocode 8 standards are an important reference to which national models may refer. Such models, when available, provide authoritative information to inform national local decisions related to developing seismic design codes and risk mitigation strategies. Integrating earthquake hazard models in specific seismic design codes helps ensure that buildings respond appropriately to earthquakes. These efforts thus contribute to better protect European citizens from earthquakes.

Main drivers of the earthquake risk are older buildings

Earthquake risk describes the estimated economic and humanitarian consequences of potential earthquakes. In order to determine the earthquake risk, information on local soil conditions, the density of buildings and people (exposure), the vulnerability of the built environment, and robust earthquake hazard assessments are needed. According to the 2020 European Seismic Risk Model (ESRM20), buildings constructed before the 1980s, urban areas, and high earthquake hazard estimates mainly drive the earthquake risk.

Although most European countries have recent design codes and standards that ensure adequate protection from earthquakes, many older unreinforced or insufficiently reinforced buildings still exist, posing a high risk for their inhabitants.

The highest earthquake risk accumulates in urban areas, such as the cities of Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey, Catania, and Naples in Italy, Bucharest in Romania, and Athens in Greece, many of which have a history of damaging earthquakes. In fact, these four countries alone experience almost 80% of the modelled average annual economic loss of 7 billion Euros due to earthquakes in Europe. However, also cities like Zagreb (Croatia), Tirana (Albania), Sofia (Bulgaria), Lisbon (Portugal), Brussels (Belgium), and Basel (Switzerland) have an above-average level of earthquake risk compared to less exposed cities, such as Berlin (Germany), London (UK), or Paris (France).

Developing the models is a joint effort

A core team of researchers from different institutions across Europe, including the leading support of members from ETH Zurich, worked collaboratively to develop the first openly available Seismic Risk Model for Europe and to update Europe’s Seismic Hazard Model. They have been part of an effort that started more than 30 years ago and involved thousands of people from all over Europe. These efforts have been funded by several European projects and supported by national groups over all these years.

Researchers from the Swiss Seismological Service (SED) and the Group of Seismology and Geodynamics at ETH Zurich led many of these projects. The SED is also home to EFEHR (European Facilities for Earthquake Hazard and Risk). EFEHR is a non-profit network dedicated to the development and updating of earthquake hazard and risk models in the European-Mediterranean region. ETH Zurich thus holds a central hub function for data collection and processing, open access to earthquake hazard and risk models including all basic data sets, and knowledge exchange.

The development of the 2020 European Seismic Hazard and Risk Models has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

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