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Inch earthquake scientist leads the way 27.02.08

PROFESSOR JOHN McCloskey caused a worldwide media scramble for his expertise in the months following the catastrophic St. Stephen's Day tsunami in December 2004. The reason every press outlet from Australia to America was looking to interview the 49-year old geophysicist was the earthquake that struck Nias island in the Indian Ocean several months after the tsunami disaster.
John and his geophysics team at the University of Ulster had calculated in a report published on St. Patrick's Day 2005, that Nias had been under increased strain from the massive earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 300,000 people.
The accuracy of his calculations stunned many and drew much praise from his seismologist counterparts across the world.
But Prof. McCloskey insists that nobody can forecast when an earthquake will strike.
All seismologists can do is closely study the data available to them and try to figure out the most vulnerable spots on the earth's crust.
The son of Jimmy McCloskey, who made and sold fireplaces at Cross Street in the Waterside and Vera, John's sister is Derry GP Dr. Anne McCloskey while he has two brothers, Frankie, a plumber now based in Gweedore, Co. Donegal and Inch-based Mickey, who runs a geothermal heating company.
John is married to Siobhan, a teacher, and the couple have two daughters, Mairead and Roisin.
Despite his eminence in the field of seismology, the geophysicist admits his lifelong interest in Science wasn't always matched by a love of the books.
"I wasn't the greatest student altogether at university. There were a lot of other distractions," he laughs, talking about his undergraduate years in the late 1970s at Queen's University, Belfast. But his great love of Science flourished when he began to teach the subject at second level at a number of Co. Derry and city schools including St. Mary's in Limavady, St. Pat's in Maghera and Thornhill College.
"I drifted into teaching after finishing my degree and they were to become some of the best years of my life."
Each year he took students to the Young Scientist Competition in Dublin, which, he describes as "brilliant times". It was during research for his PhD in Physics at Coleraine in the early 1990s that his future career in the field of earthquakes was forged. "I was trying to understand earthquakes in terms of chaos theory,"
Prof. John McCloskey.
he explains, adding that one of his biggest influences during that time was his PhD supervisor, the now deceased Prof. Bill Carter.
Another great source of encouragement during this time was when he won a European award for a paper on earthquake physics.
When he completed his doctorate, his wife agreed to give up her teaching job in Magherafelt so that John could take up a lecturing post in a university in France.
"We agreed that we should at least give it a few years in France to see how it went," he said.
Nearly 13 years later, he leads the Geophysics Research Group in the Geophysics Department his founded at the UU in Coleraine.
He and his team have led research involving ten institutes on Geophysics and Volcanology from all over Europe including Paris, Rome, Athens and Prague and they regularly collaborate with people in the US and all over the world.
"Our group is very much an international one and we are very well known. We are trying to understand general problems so we work on earthquakes everywhere."
Their research post-tsunami shows how the stresses had moved through the Indonesian region in the wake of the 2004 earthquake. They found that the pressure on a 50-kilometre stretch of the Sunda trench had increased by up to five bars, and a 300-kilometre segment of the Sumatra fault was under an extra nine bars of strain.
His team's measurements, showing the increased strain on the Sunda trench, to the southeast of the region where December's earthquake struck, were borne out on Nias Island.
When he learned of the St. Stephen's Day disaster in the Indian Ocean, he was enjoying a glass of wine at home in Inch Island.
When he realised the extent of the earthquake he convened his team immediately in a bid to try and identify other vulnerable areas in the region.
Through their mathematical calculations, they concluded that the increased strain on the neighbouring Sumatra fault, which runs through the island itself, made Sumatra the most likely place for another earthquake of the magnitude 7-7.5 on the Richter Scale.
John McCloskey consistently stresses the importance that seismologists' findings are not predictions.
"There is no reputable scientist in the world today who believes that earthquakes are presently predictable. There are some reputable scientists who believe that they will be predictable some time in the future. I'm not one of those. I don't believe they will ever be predictable. I want to stick to the proper interpretation of what we are saying which is that the risk has increased and the risk has increased because of the stresses. They aren't predictions."
He believes earthquake-vulnerable Indonesia should lead the way in the future building of accommodation that would resist earthquakes.
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