Scientists exploring quake predictions by smell

Costa Rica’s earthquake experts are suggesting more study of the theory that one might be able to smell a coming earthquake.

The Red Sismológica Nacional took note of a study that says the level of ozone in the air increases dramatically in the processes leading up to an earthquake.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science developed this idea and even suggested this is why animals behave unusually just before an earthquake. The research led by Raúl A. Baragiola said that crushing rock produces a detectable amount of ozone.

A valid method to predict quakes is the holy grail of geological science, and finding such a method would save many lives and reduce property damage.

The Red Sismológica just posted on its Facebook page a summary of Baragiola’s research which was published originally in Applied Physics Letters late last year. The matter is of much more than just theoretical value because Costa Rica is geologically active and a major quake has been predicted for the Nicoya Peninsula area based on historical trends.

Ozone is a gas with three atoms of oxygen instead of the usual two. That is why is it far more active than its more stable molecule. The gas also has a pungent smell that can be detected by humans in small amounts. This is the smell that comes after an electrical discharge or lightning.

Baragiola and his team set up experiments to measure ozone produced by crushing or drilling into different igneous and metamorphic rocks, including granite, basalt, gneiss, rhyolite and quartz. Different rocks produced different amounts of ozone, with rhyolite producing the strongest ozone emission, they found, according to a university report.

Some time prior to an earthquake, pressures begin to build in underground faults, the university noted, adding that these pressures fracture rocks, and presumably, would produce detectable ozone.

To distinguish whether the ozone was coming from the rocks or from reactions in the atmosphere, the researchers conducted experiments in pure oxygen, nitrogen, helium and carbon dioxide. They found that ozone was produced by fracturing rocks only in conditions containing oxygen atoms, such as air, carbon dioxide and pure oxygen molecules, indicating that it came from reactions in the gas. This suggests that rock fractures may be detectable by measuring ozone, the university said.

“If future research shows a positive correlation between ground-level ozone near geological faults and earthquakes, an array of interconnected ozone detectors could monitor anomalous patterns when rock fracture induces the release of ozone from underground and surface cracks,” Baragiola was quoted as saying.

Costa Rica now has three separate networks of various types of earthquake detecting sensors, but they are not predictive. The country is located over the juncture between the Caribbean and Cocos tectonic plates. This contact generates many quakes, but there are local faults, too.

The most recent quake was at 4:05 p.m. Sunday with an epicenter estimated to be less than 2 kilometers north of San Miguel de Desamparados and about 5 kilometers south of San Pedro de Montes de Oca. The magnitude was just 2.2., according to the Laboratorio de Ingeniería Sísmica at the Universidad de Costa Rica.

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