Scientists Will Drill Directly Into a Fault Overdue for an Earthquake

By Sarah Zhang on at

The Alpine fault is the most dangerous fault in New Zealand—and one of the most dangerous in the world. It ruptures with an 8.0-magnitude earthquake roughly once every 300 years, and with the last one in 1717, it's ripe for another. So what are we going to do about it? Why, drill a hole nearly a mile deep into it.

For all that we know about earthquakes in 2014, we're still terribly lousy at predicting them. Scientists have no idea what happens inside an active fault the months, days, and minutes leading up to a quake. The Deep Fault Drilling Project in New Zealand will the first time scientists have ever drilled into an active fault overdue for a big earthquake.

The borehole, about 5000 feet deep and four inches in diameter, will reach down into the "crush zone" where one plate grinds into the other. A whole bevy of sensors will take measurements on temperature, pressure, sound, and images of the active fault. Rock samples will also be retrieved from the borehole to study the scars left by past seismic activity.

"We really don't know what we will find once we get deep into the fault zone," the project's co-leader, Rupert Sutherland, said in a Victoria University press release. The drilling project is unprecedented. Scientist have drilled deep into a fault once before: a portion of the San Andreas Fault in California that experiences frequent but small earthquakes. The Deep Fault Drilling Project is a completely different beast, though, peeking inside a fault that is likely to unleash a huge and deadly quake. Whatever they find, I'm glad to be far, far way. [Victoria University, Nature]