Jailing of Italian Seismologists Raises Questions Over Earthquake Prediction

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Can We Predict Earthquakes?

So, with the conviction of the seven defendants, is it reasonable to expect seismologists to provide accurate predictions of earthquakes and, thus, save lives? The USGS is unambiguous in its view: in its FAQ section of its website, it answers the question ‘Can scientists predict earthquakes?’ with “No, and it is unlikely they will ever be able to predict them.”

The town of Parkfield was the centre of an unsuccessful prediction experiment Image courtesy of the U.S. Government

Of course, this is to a degree simplistic . Predicting when and where major earthquakes will occur is a major aspiration of seismic science, and much study has been devoted to it. Studies have focused on characteristic earthquakes and seismic gaps (identifying a pattern of earthquakes in a particular location) and purely statistical approaches, using probability theory. Other attempts have been made to predict quakes by measuring the release of radon gas, mapping small tremors, and even studying the behavior of animals.

So far, however, nothing has produced a methodology which can be successfully applied. California’s famous Parkfield earthquake prediction experiment, for example, eventually produced the expected magnitude of earthquake in the expected place – but as it occurred a full nine years after the eight-year window predicted, this cannot be considered a particularly useful model. And while some earthquakes do appear to have been predicted successfully, their occurrence is few and is probably down to chance.

The Future for Seismology and Earthquake Prediction

The jailing of the Italian scientists has, unsurprisingly, led to outrage among the scientific community. Several other senior Italian scientists have resigned in the wake of the convictions: in the words of one of them, “this is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state.

Many decades of research, and many millions of dollars have failed to solve the problem of predicting earthquakes. The situation is pithily summed up by geoscientist Robert Geller in the paper Earthquake prediction: a critical review. “Claims of breakthroughs have failed to withstand scrutiny,” he notes. “Extensive searches have failed to find reliable precursors… Reliable issuing of alarms of imminent large earthquakes appears to be effectively impossible.”

Which won’t necessarily be much of a comfort to Italy’s seismologists…

Sources

BBC News Online. Italy scientists on trial over L’Aquila earthquake. (2012). Accessed October 24, 2012.

Geller, R. J. Earthquake prediction: a critical review in Geophysical Journal International. (1997). Accessed October 24, 2012.

Palmer, R. Italian Earthquake Manslaughter Trial Could Chill Scientist-Government Relations in International Business Times. (2012). Accessed October 24, 2012.

USGS. Earthquake hazards program poster M6.3, L’Aquila, Italy, 6 April 2009(2012). Accessed October 24, 2012.

USGS. Frequently Asked Questions(2012). Accessed October 24, 2012.

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