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Earthquake Prediction Months In Advance 297

Posted by Hemos
from the looking-into-the-future dept.
eegad writes "A UCLA seismologist named Vladimir Keilis-Borok claims earthquakes can be predicted months in advance. In the article at the University of California Newswire, he claims that the "team including experts of pattern recognition, geodynamics, seismology, chaos theory, statistical physics and public safety ... has developed algorithms to detect precursory earthquake patterns." It also says "the team's current predictions have not missed any earthquake, and have had its two most recent ones come to pass." They predict "an earthquake of at least magnitude 6.4 by Sept. 5, 2004, in a region that includes the southeastern portion of the Mojave Desert, and an area south of it." We'll see if they're right."
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Earthquake Prediction Months In Advance

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  • So that means... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TheDredd (529506) on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:23AM (#7952292)
    that if they published this information a bit earlier, or used the tech worldwide a bit earlier, lives could have been saved in Iran
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:26AM (#7952332)
    There's been other studies like this.

    For example, 30-odd years ago, some school did research looking in newspapers of the last 30 days before an earthquake for missing dog reports. Their results showed a large increase right around the time an earthquake happened in the area of the quake.

    Blogzine [blogzine.net]
  • by lildogie (54998) on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:35AM (#7952420)
    People expect that earthquake prediction would be accurate to within a few hours, so that evacuations can be accomplished, while avoiding unneccessary evacuations. The trouble is, evacuations are expensive, have their own hazards, and it's going to be incredibly hard to choose the lesser evil of bad evacuation timing, versus the present practice of not evacuating and being unprepared for the quake.

    What would really help is a preparation protocol that can be syncronized more accurately with risk. If an earthquake could be predicted with a graduated probability, then gradually more disruptive preparation steps could be taken as the risk rises.

  • by ParadoxicalPostulate (729766) <saapad@@@gmail...com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:35AM (#7952421) Journal
    There is no doubt in my mind that this is a breakthrough in earthquake science, and that the researchers who developed this so called "tail wags the dog" method should be congratulated for their achievement.

    One thing bothers me, however. Okay, so we know that there's going to be an earthquake somewhere in the world. The question is, what can we do?

    In an affluent country/county, with educated individuals and a well organized emergency response force, there are several things to be done. First, evacuation procedures are begun. Secondly, the rescue and medical teams can be put on standby. Many similar actions can be taken.

    However, the vast majority of the world that experiences earthquakes with some consistency can't do quite as much with such foreknowledge. First, most of their buildings are not specially enhanced to survive earthquakes (witness Iran, an extreme case of unpreparedness I admit but it serves my pont). Secondly, the population is highly dense and these people don't necessarily comprehend the danger, making evacuation procedures much less effective. Thirdly, the emergency police/medical presence in such areas is pitiful. Finally, the state itself does not have the necessary resources to carry out effective measures - they have to wait until foreign aid pours in. Now, the question is, will the U.S. grant emergency aid to, say, Iraq, because someone predicted that an earthquake would occur? Not likely. And if they don't get the money, these emergency operations don't get underway in any meaningful manner.

    It seems to me that the focus has been diverted from building the infrastructure necessary to cope with earthquakes (in terms of buildings as well as emergency care) to instead predicting them in advance. As I said, if predicting them won't do too much good, why are we concentrating more in that area than in the one that actually WILL make a difference.

    Hell, its probably the same deal as with research in diseases. The people with the money to conduct research don't have the same priorities/problems as those for whom research could benefit most.

    Maybe I'm just pessimistic.
  • Re:PBS (Score:5, Interesting)

    by grasshoppa (657393) * <skennedy@t[ ]-co.org ['pno' in gap]> on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:35AM (#7952423) Homepage
    True, but like anything else, it follows natural laws, so it is possible to predict it, if we can find an easy way to consider all the variables ( or most of them, at least ).

    Which is why I am confident we will someday find a way to predict ( with 100% accuracy ) weather patterns.
  • Richter scale... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by zeux (129034) * on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:44AM (#7952514)
    Giving a value on the Richter scale [nrcan.gc.ca] is not really meaningfull. You can have a 7 earthquake doing almost no damage if it happens far below earth surface and big damage with a 4 one near the surface in a low developped country.

    It all depends on where the earthquake takes place.

    You should use an estimate on the Mercalli scale [berkeley.edu]. I find it more relevant.

    Richter scale is all about energy released, Mercalli scale is all about damage/lost of lives which really is what matters.
  • by IgD (232964) on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:44AM (#7952515)
    One of my fondest memories from high school was Iben Browning's earthquake prediction. He claimed a massive earth quake was going to shake the New Madrid fault around 1990. See http://geology.about.com/library/weekly/aa030903a. htm. Several months before the predicted date we had a 4.x quake during school. Everyone thought this was clear evidence Browning's prediction would come true. The school board cancelled class for 2 days surrounding the predicted date. No earthquake ever occurred. He helped us out and made the merchants in our area who jacked up their prices rich.
  • Peer Review (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 12, 2004 @11:59AM (#7952662)
    Note that this hypothesis "... has [been]submitted... to Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, a leading international journal in geophysics." I've seen similar theories that never get published because of reproducibility problems or other issues that get shot down during peer review.
  • I R'd the FA... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Unknown Kadath (685094) on Monday January 12, 2004 @12:02PM (#7952695)
    ...and it's a press release, so there's not much actual information in there. Apparently, a chain of small quakes tends to precede larger ones, but I want to know whether the team has a model of why this is so. Matching patterns is the place to start, but saying "there's going be a quake between 5 and 6 on the Richter scale inside this 1000 mile radius within 9 months" is like saying "there's going to be a blizzard that drops between 6 and 12 inches of snow on New England this winter." You can get either of those predictions by watching long enough, but they don't have real value to people in the affected area. I hope the UCLA team is not working solely from observation, but has built or is working toward building a physical model that they can refine as they get more data.

    -Carolyn
  • There is no downside (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mcmonkey (96054) on Monday January 12, 2004 @12:19PM (#7952944) Homepage
    (unless you just hate shit like this because it ruins the surprise.)

    If this turns out to be true, it would be a disaster for the economy in an area.

    Bzzzt. Wrong. Thank you for playing. Not only would more accurate and more precise prediction of earthquakes reduce loss in the affected areas, it could potentially create a whole new tourist trade.

    Have you ever felt the effects of an earthquake? I have, and it's pretty cool. The earth quakes. It's better than any roller coaster ever made. And I was in a mild 6.2.

    Death and disaster is not cool. But what if predictions were good enough that could be sure to be in a safe area to 'view' the quake and not in the subway or driving across a bridge? Folks fly around the world to see eclipses. Don't you think folks would hop on a plane for a reasonably sure shot at being in a quake?

    Sure, if you like big surprises and chaos and destruction, better quake predictions are a buzz kill. But other than that, what is the downside? Would you rather have a report today saying you're going to get cancer in 6 months, or a report in a year saying you just died of cancer?

  • what to do? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jafac (1449) on Monday January 12, 2004 @01:38PM (#7953792) Homepage
    I was near the recent California quake. If I had known it was going to be a 6.5, at that exact date and time, well, I would have packed up the family and spent the day in Santa Barbara. Probably would have taken all the pictures and valuables off the shelves, put them away safely, and had my car been up on jackstands (as it often is :(. . .) I would have put it back on the ground.
    Probably would have stocked up on batteries - maybe even splurged and bought a diesel generator. Bottled water too. Definately. (a few broken water mains around here - Paso Robles has a ruptured municipal water storage tank, so everybody there will have to cut back for a few months).

    If I worked in a high-rise, I absolutely would not have gone to work that day.

    On the other hand, if they can't give a precise time of the event, or magnitude, that's less useful. I mean, if it could have been a much stronger quake, I would definately have bought earthquake insurance. :)
    I would have taken down the shelving units in my garage, next to my car. (in addition to all the other stuff), and maybe even get some structural reinforcement done to my home.

    But with a vague event time, I might have actually gone to work (assuming I worked in a high-rise) -
    so accuracy is a very important factor. If they gave like a two month window for the event, I could imagine something like that could be absolutely devestating, economically. Businesses would shut down. People would leave. Just on the possibility that it could be an 8.0 at any given time. If I wasn't convinced that a strong quake weren't unlikely, I don't think I'd stay here.

    This 6.5 was "the big one" for the next 50 years or so. I'll trade that for Tornadoes any day.
  • Re:Yep (Score:4, Interesting)

    by belloc (37430) <belloc&latinmail,com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @01:46PM (#7953890) Homepage
    As in, hey two weeks from friday, leave the area for a day or two.

    Earthquakes (in modern cities like LA, for example) cause far more damage to property than to people.

    [Of course, the recent earthquake in Bam was an exception to this in that property was destroyed *and* people were killed, both because of the magnitude of the quake and the fact that most of the city was built without much insight into earthquake engineering.]

    Advice like leaving the city for a day or two won't do much to mitigate the effects of a major quake in a modern city, I'm afraid. It would actually probably make things worse (for the most part) by adding traffic snarls on broken roadways to the list of post-quake problems.

    Belloc
  • by jhines0042 (184217) on Monday January 12, 2004 @01:55PM (#7953986) Journal
    If you can predict earthquakes accurately enough then you can model them. If you can model them then maybe you can find a way to release a few smaller earth quakes rather than wait for the large earthquake.

    Earthquakes are after all about relieving pent up pressure between the plates. I don't know how you could do it, but they might find a way to releive that pressure before a big quake is needed to release it. If you have three months warning, that might be enough to plan for and execute a pressure release!
  • by tiger99 (725715) on Monday January 12, 2004 @02:50PM (#7954549)
    Yes, you are right about long-term planning, if the politicians will listen, but history has proved in the case of volcanic eruptions, which are slightly more predictable than earthquakes, that they generally do not listen. If a quake is predicted in the next 7 days, and it actually arrives in 8, everyone will be back home, and the casualties will be enormous.

    The only long term solution is to depopulate the vulnerable areas, locating all industry and housing in stable regions. The earthquake zones are OK for agriculture, provided the small number of buildings needed are properly designed.

    Does anyone ever wonder why, in spite of many historical disasters, the US population in the principal earthquake regions continues to grow? Who profits from this? And who will benefit by allowing a situation lie this to continue, despite the certainty of there being 7-digit (yes, I mean 7-digit, a million or more) casualties in a major city within the next 50 years?

    Look elsewhere, to Naples, and you will see the potential, indeed the certainty, of a million or more casualties if Mt. Vesuvius enters a new eruptive cycle, the first eruption of any cycle being likely to be massive, and pyroclastic. The time to evacuate the population is several days, from nothing to a much bigger than Mt. St. Helens eruption, only a few hours. Yet people live there... (In fairness to the Italian government, they are trying very hard, but have so far failed to slow down the population growth).

    I ask myself why, when there are better places to live. Governments, including the US, should be planning a phased withdrawal from earthquake zones, instead they encourage the setup of vital industries in these regions. The Japanese are no better, remember the semiconductor shortage because one factory in the whole world that made a certain epoxy resin was situated in Kobe, and was out of action for many months? It all makes no sense.

    Nor will the actions of the local government when a quake is predicted on the west coast of the US. Sadly, we will not have to wait long to find out how irresponsibly it will be handled.

    Having said all this, my mother has recently moved house and lives on a fault line, the mighty Ochil Fault in Central Scotland. The vertical displacement of this fault is at least 5km (yes, really, over 3 miles, vertically, maybe a lot more, because even the coal mining industry has never bored deep enough to find out) at its maximum, and at least 3km wher it passes within 100 metres of the house. But, and it is a very big but, the last quake was about 2 on the Richter scale, way below the threshold where damage occurs, a few years ago. It is a very old fault, dating from the Carboniferous era or maybe before, and nowhere near a modern plate boundary. However, if that region did revert to its original level of activity, life would not be possible within 200 miles, or maye even nowhere in the UK, as there would also be massive pyroclastic volcanism. But, reactivation of such regions is unlikely, and certainly does not happen within a human time scale. However, it does make one think....

  • Re:Pfft my ass. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Reziac (43301) on Monday January 12, 2004 @03:14PM (#7954783) Homepage Journal
    The problem is that the otherwise-more-desirable areas economically (good harbours, good rail access, natural resources, etc.) also tend to lie along areas high in natural disasters. As you say, it hasn't stopped anyone from living there, even tho we KNOW New York City is long-overdue for an 8+ quake, as are Seattle and the Bay area, and there's also some question about St.Louis (where historically, we already once had what some regard as the most economically-destructive quake in history). And hurricane season doesn't stop anyone from building in Florida or the Carolinas or Halifax. Being tornado alley's ground zero (likewise a predictable annual event) hasn't depopulated Oklahoma City, either. If you have any brains, you build to account for whatever your region throws at you. Proper foundations in quake zones, brush clearance and ceramic tile roofs in wildfire zones, shutters in hurricane zones, etc.

    But as another poster points out, to some degree the rest of us pay for all this, primarily with increased insurance rates. Shoddy construction in Florida results in houses being blown away -- funny how a much bigger hurricane can hit Halifax and do far less damage! (And ordinary winter winds on the Great Plains are routinely hurricane force, yet houses don't fall over there.) Turns out building contractors in Florida often (illegally) use staples instead of nails, and staples pull out when stressed, so in a high wind these houses literally fall apart. But meanwhile, insurance skyrockets for everyone, deserving or not.

    Here in California, you can no longer always get private homeowner's insurance if you're in a severe wildfire or earthquake zone, but you can get federally-funded (ie. taxpayer-paid) insurance.

    No good answers, just a pile of observations. :)

    And remember.. the four California seasons: Fire, Flood, Riot, and Earthquake!

  • by michael_cain (66650) on Monday January 12, 2004 @03:38PM (#7955019) Journal
    People can always come back to town after the quake hits, and return to their land and repair their buildings.

    Assuming that they can afford such repairs without insurance. If these guys are onto something and can forecast large earthquakes at least several months in advance, and I'm an insurance company, I will not renew policies on buildings in those areas. Same kind of ethical problem that comes out of our increasing understanding of the human genome -- "Your genes make it quite probable that you will develop cancer by the time you're 50, so no medical insurance (or at least no cancer coverage) for you."

"It is better to have tried and failed than to have failed to try, but the result's the same." - Mike Dennison

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