Three questions for Alexander Allmann, geophysicist and earthquake expert at Munich Re

After more than six years of work, the OpenQuake platform went into operation at the end of January 2015. The goal of the joint initiative Global Earthquake Model (GEM) is no less than to enable a comprehensive and holistic form of risk consideration. Questions for Alexander Allmann, geophysicist and earthquake expert at Munich Re.


Mr. Allmann, what is the OpenQuake platform?

The OpenQuake platform is a project of the joint Global Earthquake Model (GEM) initiative that Munich Re launched in 2006. Our aim is to generate greater transparency with regard to the risk of earthquakes and the damage they cause, especially these regions. A sharper awareness of the risks is required, especially in developing and emerging countries, to prevent losses in the future and to better be able to assess them. We deliberately use open-source software, because only with the open standards will it be possible for as many scientists as possible to come together and form a global risk community. Before now there was as good as no software accessible to everybody, which could reliably provide information on the hazard and the risk resulting from it. Now we can link global data sets to local events.

Why is it in particular emerging and developing nations that will profit from the platform?

In industrialised countries like USA or Japan, there is generally already an established risk community. But in emerging and developing nations, there is often no expert network that can fall back on reliable data. As tens of thousands of people died in a serious earthquake in Pakistan four years ago, the negative consequences for the economy were comparatively minor.

But quite the opposite was the case after a series of major quakes in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010 and 2011: Less than 200 people lost their lives there, but the losses to the insurance industry were in the double-digit euro billions. In a comparatively weak quake in Emilia Romagna in southern Italy three years ago, only 23 people died, but the financial losses were in the billions. So while the socio-economic losses outweighed the physical ones in the first-world countries, the opposite was true in the emerging and developing nations.

There in particular, inadequate data and varying methodologies made it difficult to assess earthquake risks. Now, even institutes in remote locations can access the database, which brings together two forms of expertise for the first time – risk assessment and engineering know-how – to calculate the region's risk. GEM has now initiated projects in places like Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Kyrgyzstan and South America, and city scenarios through Quito in Ecuador and Lima in Peru. It offers the opportunity, especially in places where there is no risk community or only a small one, to sensitise people more for the dangers of earthquakes, and consequently also for insurance solutions.

The OpenQuake platform is designed primarily to improve risk evaluation and transparency with regard to earthquakes, and thus to promote prevention. Do the new volumes of data make it easier to predict earthquakes?

Earthquakes cannot be predicted. But we can calculate probabilities, which are relevant, for example, for building codes. In this way, we can find out regions that have a ten-percent probability of having to deal with an earthquake in the next 50 years. We also know that 90% of all earthquakes occur at the edges of the tectonic plates, and so we know where the hot spots are. With the number and size of conurbations increasing all the time around the world, the probability of people falling victim to earthquakes is also on the rise. If we could one day manage it that a look at the database suffices to know the risk connected to building a house, anywhere on the planet: then we will have achieved our long-term goal.