Articles | Volume 10, issue 2
17 Feb 2010
 | 17 Feb 2010

"Storms of crustal stress" and AE earthquake precursors

G. P. Gregori, M. Poscolieri, G. Paparo, S. De Simone, C. Rafanelli, and G. Ventrice

Abstract. Acoustic emission (AE) displays violent paroxysms preceding strong earthquakes, observed within some large area (several hundred kilometres wide) around the epicentre. We call them "storms of crustal stress" or, briefly "crustal storms". A few case histories are discussed, all dealing with the Italian peninsula, and with the different behaviour shown by the AE records in the Cephalonia island (Greece), which is characterized by a different tectonic setting.

AE is an effective tool for diagnosing the state of some wide slab of the Earth's crust, and for monitoring its evolution, by means of AE of different frequencies. The same effect ought to be detected being time-delayed, when referring to progressively lower frequencies. This results to be an effective check for validating the physical interpretation.

Unlike a seismic event, which involves a much limited focal volume and therefore affects a restricted area on the Earth's surface, a "crustal storm" typically involves some large slab of lithosphere and crust. In general, it cannot be easily reckoned to any specific seismic event. An earthquake responds to strictly local rheological features of the crust, which are eventually activated, and become crucial, on the occasion of a "crustal storm". A "crustal storm" lasts typically few years, eventually involving several destructive earthquakes that hit at different times, at different sites, within that given lithospheric slab.

Concerning the case histories that are here discussed, the lithospheric slab is identified with the Italian peninsula. During 1996–1997 a "crustal storm" was on, maybe elapsing until 2002 (we lack information for the period 1998–2001). Then, a quiet period occurred from 2002 until 26 May 2008, when a new "crustal storm" started, and by the end of 2009 it is still on. During the 1996–1997 "storm" two strong earthquakes occurred (Potenza and Colfiorito) – and (maybe) in 2002 also the Molise earthquake can be reckoned to this "storm". During the "storm", started in 2008, the l'Aquila earthquake occurred.

Additional logical analysis envisages the possibility of distinguishing some kind of "elementary" constituents of a "crustal storm", which can be briefly called "crustal substorms". The concept of "storm" and "substorm" is a common logical aspect, which is shared by several phenomena, depending on their common intrinsic and primary logical properties that can be called lognormality and fractality. Compared to a "crustal storm", a "crustal substorm" is likely to be reckoned to some specific seismic event. Owing to brevity purposes, however, the discussion of "substorms" is given elsewhere.

AE is an effective tool for monitoring these phenomena, and other processes that are ongoing within the crust. Eventually they result to be precursors of some more or less violent earthquake. It should be stressed, however, that the target of AE monitoring is diagnosing the Earth's crust. In contrast, earthquake prediction implies a much different perspective, which makes sense only by means of more detailed multiparametric monitoring. An AE array can provide real physical information only about the processes that are objectively ongoing inside different and contiguous large slabs of the crust. The purpose is to monitor the stress propagation that crosses different regions, in order to envisage where and when it can eventually trigger a catastrophe of the system. The conclusion is that continental – or planetary – scale arrays of AE monitoring stations, which record a few different AE frequencies, appear to be the likely first step for diagnosing the evolution of local structures preceding an earthquake. On the other hand, as it is well known, the magnitude of the shock is to be related to the elastic energy stored in the focal volume, rather than to the trigger that starts it.