A team of scientists gathered from leading European earthquake research centres is flying to Japan tomorrow to make a detailed study of the damage caused by the earthquake that has devastated the Kansai region.
The initiative is being coordinated by Roy Severn, director of Bristol University's earthquake engineering research centre, which is sending one of its researchers, Adam Crewe.
Professor Severn says that the effort, which is backed by the European Union, will aim to "find out how, why and which buildings failed". He says that a big difficulty in designing for earthquakes is that there is no chance of proving the designs beforehand: "It is not like cars or aircraft where you can test to destruction." One of the most important questions the team will be asking is whether supervision of the construction of buildings and other infrastructure had ensured that design specifications were followed faithfully.
Professor Severn says that older buildings are most likely to have suffered most damage. But arguments that these should have been brought up to new standards should take into account that retrofitting is very expensive and difficult. "We in the earthquake research world believe that we design buildings that can withstand any earthquake. But in the real world it is always a balance between cost and safety." Much higher standards than those for buildings are employed in the construction of bridges, power stations and dams.
He would like to see these higher standards adopted for services infrastructure such as water in earthquake prone areas. "One of the reasons they have had such difficulty in fighting fires in Japan is because the water supplies have been decimated."
The lack of water was one the biggest problems faced initially by the Kobe Institute, an outpost of St Catherine's College, Oxford. Kobe is the city worst affected by the earthquake.
Fram Dinshaw, finance bursar of the college, said on Wednesday morning: "We've been incredibly luck. No one has been hurt at the institute as far as I know." Initially the institute had no food and water but it is understood that a small stream near the facility is being used and food is now accessible. All students are accounted for including six Leeds University students on an exchange visit to Japan feared missing earlier this week.
* Scientists said this week that the earthquake, which has left at least 1,800 people dead in Kobe, was not spectacular by world seismological standards.
John Lovell of the National Environmental Research Council's global seismology research group in Edinburgh said there are 20 similar earthquakes each year, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale.
An earthquake off north Japan in October 1994 was ten times greater, at 8.2 on the Richter scale, but caused only a few fatalities. The Kobe earthquake caused particular devastation because it was shallow and near a very highly populated area.
The British Geological Survey's instruments, aimed at recording data from Britain's 300 annual earthquakes, had recorded its shock waves.
The first recorded earthquake in the Kobe area was in August 887. Mr Lovell said that long-term monitoring, including the use of historic archives, was crucial in helping to predict earthquakes.