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A new study out of Japan suggests that elevated levels of groundwater helium may serve as an indicator of a looming earthquake.

The major earthquake that struck Kumamoto Prefecture along the Futagawa Fault in April of this year may have unlocked a secret to help predict future seismic activity.


Elevated groundwater helium levels

Researchers from the University of Tokyo and their team have been studying the ground near the epicenter of the 7.3-magnitude April earthquake and they discovered elevated levels of groundwater helium, which they believe is directly tied to increased stress in the inner rock layers.

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Their theory is simply this: There is an isotope of helium known as helium-4 that is trapped under the Earth’s crust. When so much stress is exerted on crust that the rock layers fracture, that helium gas escapes up through the cracks where some of it becomes trapped by the water in and on the ground.

If this does indeed happen prior to an earthquake, the idea is that large seismic events could be predicted by simply monitoring the levels of helium-4 in the groundwater along fault lines. This would give inhabitants in these areas time to evacuate, saving countless lives.


Groundwater helium and geological features

We’ve only recently discovered that escaping helium can and does mix with groundwater around certain geologic features. In fact, when that water runs down mountains and slopes, it carries that helium along with it. In many cases, we find that settled groundwater helium in the underground reservoirs that are drilled for natural gas.


Deciphering groundwater helium

While there is a lot of studying left to do to see if groundwater helium really is a reliable predictor of earthquakes, the Universty of Tokyo research team’s theory makes sense.

Take Yellowstone National Park for example, which is renown for its seismic activity.

Only recently did scientists discover that around 60 tons of helium gas escapes from the park’s seismic features each and every year, and that this has been occurring annually for around 2 billion years.

No one can say for sure yet, but it appears that our best lead to the holy grail of earthquake prediction could simply be helium!


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Sources: University of Tokyo, European Association of Geochemistry