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Eagle spreads its wings

University of Leicester geophysicists on seismic project in Ethiopia
[Logo: Eagle project]

When the largest seismic project ever undertaken in Africa takes place in a country caught up yet again in famine, it not only raises a nightmarish logistics operation, but also difficult ethical issues.

University of Leicester geophysicists recently led just such an operation in Ethiopia.

Phase 3 of the EAGLE Project (Ethiopia Afar Geoscientific Lithospheric Experiment) has just been completed, under the leadership of Professor Peter Maguire. The project involves study of the first stages in the break-up of a continent, and in particular the transition from continental to oceanic rifting.

Situated where the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet the East African Rift, Ethiopia is one of the very few places on Earth where geologists can study the active process of stretching of the continental plate and associated volcanism and tectonic activity, prior to flooding by a newly formed sea. [Photo: landscape, Ethiopia]

While Phases 1 and 2 of the project recorded natural earthquakes, Phase 3 has involved a controlled source seismic study involving the detonation of explosive charges in deep boreholes on land and in lakes, recorded by instruments deployed on two 450km long profiles, along the axis and at right angles to the Ethiopian Rift. 

The instruments record the seismic waves as they reach the Earth’s surface, the resulting seismograms being compiled into time-distance record sections, which can then be interpreted to provide high-resolution images of the crust and immediate upper mantle of the Earth. These will show how much the Earth’s crust has stretched, the distribution of sediments and volcanic rocks within the Rift, and, it is hoped, the location of magma chambers beneath the profiles, sourcing the surface volcanics.

Major partners in the project include Stanford University and the University of Texas, El Paso, USA, two of the most influential US universities in this field, which made available funding of £300,000.  Other principal partners included the University of Leeds and Royal Holloway College, London, (who respectively led Phase 1 and 2 of EAGLE), the University of Copenhagen, the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and the University of Vienna.  

Ethiopia itself has been deeply committed to the project, with strong support from the Ethiopian Commission of Science and Technology, and the involvement of highly skilled scientists from the Geophysical Observatory and the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Addis Ababa, as well as from the Ethiopian Geological Survey and the Petroleum Operations Department of the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines.

Phase 3 of the study required a huge and sometimes dangerous logistics programme involving 70 scientists from the USA, Europe and Ethiopia, deploying 1,000 seismic recorders, transporting 22 tons of explosive in security-guarded trucks, firing that explosive at 19 shotpoints in both deep boreholes and two saline lakes, the whole project covering an area of 400 x 400 sq km of Ethiopian countryside from the Blue Nile to the Bale Mountains and the Rift Valley Lakes to Afar.  

In the field were six shooting teams drawn from the US, UK, Austria, Denmark and Ireland. Twenty recording teams were responsible for the deployment and pick up of the seismic recorders. Other personnel were based in the two centres of Nazret and Addis Ababa, operating the computer equipment, the communication system and managing the project. All teams included European or US plus Ethiopian researchers.

The project also raised ethical issues. As Ethiopia is once again caught up in famine, was it right that such a large group of international scientists should “invade” the country, and so much funding should be ploughed into a scientific research project?

The Ethiopian Government has been hugely supportive, pointing out the investment and academic prestige EAGLE has brought to the country. It is also certainly the case that there will be benefits to Ethiopia in terms of developing knowledge of the seismic and volcanic hazard, the mineral and geothermal resource, and of understanding the country’s geology.

Equally, however, the results will be of major importance to Earth Scientists the world over, and will be published in international scientific journals and popular literature.

The University of Leicester geophysicists involved in EAGLE have felt moved to raise money to help alleviate the famine in a country that has given them such generous support in this seismic project. 

To date they have raised £1,500. If you would like to make a donation to their Ethiopian fund, please contact Professor Peter Maguire of the Department of Geology, or transfer a donation directly into the bank account set up for the purpose:

P.K.H.Maguire EAGLE Famine Relief
94a London Road, Leicester
Bank Sort Code 40-28-08
Bank Account Number 81515969

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Last updated: 4 March 2003 10:55
Created by: Rachel Tunstall

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