A major earthquake, of magnitude 8 or greater, may strike Jammu and Kashmir, endangering the lives of as many as a million people, latest geologic mapping in the Himalayan mountains of the state suggests.
Scientists have known about the Riasi fault in Jammu and Kashmir, but it was not thought to be as much as a threat as other, more active fault systems. However, following a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 2005 on the nearby Balakot-Bagh fault in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir—which was not considered particularly dangerous because it was not on the plate boundary—researchers began scrutinising other fault systems in the region.
They found that the Riasi fault has been building up pressure for some time, suggesting that when it does release or "slip," the resulting earthquake may be large - as much as magnitude 8.0 or greater.
"What we set out to learn was how much the fault has moved in the last tens of thousands of years, when it moved, and how different segments of the fault move," said Yann Gavillot, lead author on the study who did much of the work as a doctoral student at Oregon State University in the US.
"What we found was that the Riasi fault is one of the main active faults in Kashmir, but there is a lack of earthquakes in the more recent geologic record. "The fault hasn't slipped for a long time, which means the potential for a large earthquake is strong. It's not a question of if it's going to happen. It's a matter of when," said Gavillot.
There is direct evidence of some seismic activity on the fault, where the researchers could see displacement of the Earth where an earthquake lifted one section of the fault five or more meters—possibly about 4,000 years ago.
Written records from local monasteries refer to strong ground-shaking over the past several thousand years, researchers said.
However, they do not have much evidence as to how frequent major earthquakes occur on the fault, or when it may happen again.
"The Riasi fault is not prominent on hazard maps for earthquake activity, but those maps are usually based more on the history of seismic activity rather than the potential for future events," said Andrew Meigs, a geology professor in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study.
"In actuality, the lack of major earthquakes heightens the likelihood that seismic risk is high," said Meigs.
The researchers said 50 per cent of the seismic "budget" for the fault can be accounted for with the new information. The budget is determined over geologic time by the movement of the tectonic plates.
In that region, the India tectonic plate is being subducted beneath the Asia plate at a rate of 14 millimetres a year; the Riasi fault accounts for half of that but has no records of major earthquakes since about 4,000 years ago, indicating a major slip, and earthquake, is due.
"In the last 4,000 years, there has only been one major event on the Riasi fault, so there is considerable slip deficit," Meigs said.
"When there is a long gap in earthquakes, they have the potential to be bigger unless earthquakes on other faults release the pressure valve. We haven't seen that. By comparison, there have been about 16 earthquakes in the past 4,000 years in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Northwest coast of the US," said Meigs.
Gavillot said a major earthquake at the Riasi fault could have a huge impact on Jammu, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, which has a population of about 1.5 million people. Another 700,000 people live in towns located right on the fault.
"There are also several dams on the Chenab River near the fault, and a major railroad that goes through or over dozens of tunnels, overpasses and bridges. The potential for destruction is much greater than the 2005 earthquake," Gavillot added.