The role of space-based observation in understanding and responding to active tectonics and earthquakes

The quantity and quality of satellite-geodetic measurements of tectonic deformation have increased dramatically over the past two decades improving our ability to observe active tectonic processes. We now routinely respond to earthquakes using satellites, mapping surface ruptures and estimating the distribution of slip on faults at depth for most continental earthquakes. Studies directly link earthquakes to their causative faults allowing us to calculate how resulting changes in crustal stress can influence future seismic hazard. This revolution in space-based observation is driving advances in models that can explain the time-dependent surface deformation and the long-term evolution of fault zones and tectonic landscapes.

The study of active tectonics is primarily concerned with the deformation of the Earth’s surface. This process results in the growth of mountains, rifting of continents and evolution of the geomorphic landscape. We aim to understand the material properties and processes that control the distribution of strain in the Earth’s crust, from mobile belts to rigid cratons. An important consequence of the movement of the Earth’s crust is that the slow accumulation of strain in the cold, brittle upper part of the crust (which builds up over hundreds to thousands of years) must eventually be released, often in earthquakes. Understanding the fundamental processes of tectonics will contribute to mitigating the growing risk of an increasingly urbanised population exposed to such hazards1.

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