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Groundwater chemistry as a precursor for earthquakes: The Iceland experience


Even during ancient times, our predecessors have used numerous precursor signals for upcoming natural disasters. Groundwater chemistry is one of them and according to latest scientific researches it has been observed to change before earthquakes.  

Alasdair Skelton from Stockholm University and his colleagues sampled groundwater from a flowing well in northern Iceland on a weekly basis for five years.

They found that the chemistry of the groundwater changed about two to six months before each of two earthquakes that occurred in October 2012 and April 2013. Their findings imply that measurements of groundwater chemistry might one day help with monitoring seismic hazards.

According to the abstract of the new paper, such changes include variations in radon count rates concentrations of dissolved elements and stable isotope ratios.

Changes in seismic wave velocities, water levels in boreholes, micro-seismicity and shear wave splitting are also thought to precede earthquakes.

"Here we analyse the stable isotope ratios and dissolved element concentrations of groundwater taken from a borehole in northern Iceland between 2008 and 2013. We find that the chemistry of the groundwater changed four to six months before two greater than magnitude 5 earthquakes that occurred in October 2012 and April 2013. Statistical analyses indicate that the changes in groundwater chemistry were associated with the earthquakes." 

The researchers suggest that as stresses built up in Earth’s crust prior to each quake, the rocks expanded causing mixing of previously distinct groundwater components. This was recorded by changes of the concentrations of elements such as sodium and changes of the ratio of the isotopes of hydrogen.

The authors do not claim that this method can predict earthquakes, but the study highlights the potential for using regular and long-term monitoring of groundwater chemistry in seismically active areas to identify heightened earthquake risk.

Sources: Stockholm University, Abstract of the paper – Nature Geoscience


  • "Changes in groundwater chemistry before two consecutive earthquakes in Iceland" – Alasdair Skelton, Margareta Andrén, Hrefna Kristmannsdóttir, Gabrielle Stockmann, Carl-Magnus Mörth, Árny Sveinbjörnsdóttir, Sigurjón Jónsson, Erik Sturkell, Helga Rakel Guðrúnardóttir, Hreinn Hjartarson, Heike Siegmund & Ingrid Kockum – Nature Geoscience (2014) – doi:10.1038/ngeo2250

Learn more:

This is the APA citation for the research article in the video: 

Grant, R. A., Halliday, T., Balderer, W. P., Leuenberger, F., Newcomer, M., Cyr, G., & Freund, F. T. (2011). Ground water chemistry changes before major earthquakes and possible effects on animals. International journal of environmental research and public health, 8(6), 1936-1956.

Video courtesy of Freethinkerfreelover

Featured image: Skútustaðir, Lake Mývatn ​by american_rugbier (CC – Flickr)

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  1. Interesting news.. As has been written elsewhere, I don’t think anyone is claiming all earthquakes are preceded by an increase in radon emissions. However over time it may be found that certain types of quakes in certain types of geology do show this trend beforehand, handing a useful tool to the kitbag to forecast earthquakes.
    Reminds of mr Giuliani in the Italian town L’Aquila who noticed a correlation between earthquake risk and radon gas emissions from the soil, in fact in 2009 he forecast an earthquake. He was alerted by clues from scientists from Russia and Turkey. Unfortunately he was “only” a lab technician and not a scientist, so he was not taken seriously and officially instructed to stop warning people.
    Hopefully all these growing pains will lead to a more aware and advanced future.

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