Scientists from Edinburgh say new aerial studies of the earth’s surface could help predict where earthquakes and landslides may occur.
Specialist sensors carried by aeroplanes are being used to take measurements which allow experts to pinpoint areas of land which are changing shape as a result of the earth’s plates moving.
A team from Edinburgh University has used the data to investigate how these movements - known as tectonic activity - have impacted on hills in California’s San Andreas Fault.
The data reveals how tectonic activity has shifted land up, down and horizontally at a ridge called Dragon’s Back. This type of movement is typically associated with earthquakes, which often occur at the boundaries between plates.
The team discovered that the movement of plates determines how sharp a hill’s ridges are and the length and steepness of its slopes.
Higher hilltops and steeper slopes are evidence of a “growing” landscape associated with faults.
The hills were measured using what is known as the LiDAR technique, which uses light pulses to gauge distances, and is more accurate than conventional radar technology, which employs electromagnetic signals.
The team says the study could alert scientists to future land shifts and fault activity.
Simon Mudd, from Edinburgh University’s School of Geosciences, said: “We are excited by our finding that growing landscapes have a distinct topographic signature that can be detected using improved remote sensing techniques.
“In tectonically active regions, such growing landscapes are associated with faults so our findings offer the potential of rapid and cost-effective detection of potentially hazardous areas.”
The study is published in the latest edition of the journal Science.