Predicting the Unpredictable

Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Susan Hough
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Predicting the Unpredictable
    Book Description:

    An earthquake can strike without warning and wreak horrific destruction and death, whether it's the cataclysmic 2008 Sichuan quake in China that killed tens of thousands or a future great earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in California, which scientists know is inevitable. Yet despite rapid advances in earthquake science, seismologists still can't predict when the Big One will hit.Predicting the Unpredictableis the first book to explain why, exploring the fact and fiction behind the science--and pseudoscience--of earthquake prediction.

    Susan Hough traces the continuing quest by seismologists to forecast the time, location, and magnitude of future quakes--a quest fraught with controversies, spectacular failures, and occasional apparent successes. She brings readers into the laboratory and out into the field with the pioneers who have sought to develop reliable methods based on observable phenomena such as small earthquake patterns and electromagnetic signals. Hough describes attempts that have raised hopes only to collapse under scrutiny, as well as approaches that seem to hold future promise. She recounts stories of strange occurrences preceding massive quakes, such as changes in well water levels and mysterious ground fogs. She also ventures to the fringes of pseudoscience to consider ideas outside the scientific mainstream, from the enduring belief that animals can sense impending earthquakes to amateur YouTube videos purporting to show earthquake lights prior to large quakes.

    This book is an entertaining and accessible foray into the world of earthquake prediction, one that illuminates the unique challenges of predicting the unpredictable.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3180-7
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[viii])
  3. CHAPTER 1 Ready to Rumble
    (pp. 1-11)

    At the beginning of 2005, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Bob Dollar was keeping a routine eye on data from the local Global Positioning System (GPS) network in southern California, and something caught his eye. A small army of GPS instruments throughout California tracks the motion of the earth’s tectonic plates; the movement of the North American Plate south relative to the Pacific Plate as well as more complicated, smaller-scale shifts. Plates move about as fast as fingernails grow; like fingernails, the movement is not only slow but also steady (fig. 1.1). But it seemed to Dollar that a group of...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Ready to Explode
    (pp. 12-28)

    If the San Gabriel anomaly was the dog that didn’t bite, it was descended from a toothier breed. Since the early twentieth century southern California has been a hotbed for not only earthquake science but also earthquake prediction; not only for earthquake prediction research but also for earthquake prediction fiascos.

    The beginnings of earthquake exploration in southern California date back to 1921, when geologist Harry Wood convinced the Carnegie Institute to underwrite a seismological laboratory in Pasadena. Looking to record local earthquakes, Wood teamed up with astronomer John August Anderson to design a seismometer that could record small local rumblings....

  5. CHAPTER 3 Irregular Clocks
    (pp. 29-38)

    Bailey Willis’s sense of urgency was based on more than just flawed data. He knew in his bones that California—southern as well as northern—was earthquake country. He knew it had been a long time since the last big quake in southern California. In the 1920s scientists’ understanding of faults and earthquakes was still pretty vague, but the idea of an earthquake cycle dates back to the late nineteenth century, when pioneering geologist G. K. Gilbert suggested that earthquakes happened as a consequence of strain accumulation. Once an earthquake released strain, Gilbert reasoned, it would take a certain amount...

  6. CHAPTER 4 The Hayward Fault
    (pp. 39-46)

    The southern San Andreas Fault is, of course, scarcely the only fault we worry about. The earth’s crust is riddled with faults, even in regions where earthquakes occur infrequently. But some faults are scarier than other faults. Size matters, but not only that. California’s Hayward Fault is clearly a branch off of the main San Andreas trunk, but it is a big branch and, worse, it runs directly through the densely populated East Bay region. The fault runs directly beneath the old City Hall in Fremont, cuts through the Oakland Zoo, and very nearly splits the goalposts at Berkeley’s Memorial...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Predicting the Unpredictable
    (pp. 47-57)

    If the long-term rate of earthquakes on a given fault isn’t regular enough to tell us when a big earthquake is due then our ability to make meaningful short-term forecasts is limited at best. Bailey Willis and Harry Wood had a sense that it had been a long time—maybe too long—since the last big quake in southern California. Eighty years later scientists still have that sense. Earthquake scientists have felt the same sense of urgency about the same fault for eight decades; this alone tells us something.

    But there is earthquake forecasting and there is earthquake prediction. Even...

  8. CHAPTER 6 The Road to Haicheng
    (pp. 58-85)

    Everybody knows that animals provide clues that big earthquakes are coming—wasn’t unusual animal behavior the basis for that earthquake that was predicted in China?

    The magnitude 7.5 Haicheng earthquake, which struck northern China in 1975, looms large in earthquake prediction annals. To understand the political as well as the scientific importance of the earthquake it is useful to first retrace the steps along the road to Haicheng. If earthquake prediction represents an ongoing collision between science and society, that collision surely reached a crescendo during the years immediately preceding and following Haicheng.

    Within earth science circles the middle of...

  9. CHAPTER 7 Percolation
    (pp. 86-95)

    Looking back at the events leading up to the Haicheng earthquake, one is left—at least, some are left—with the sense that something must have been brewing under and around the Bohai Sea in the years leading up to 1975. It bears repeating: the obvious inference might well be wrong. Earthquakes may cluster in time and space for no other reason than the fact that movement on one fault disturbs neighboring faults. It would not be good news for the cause of prediction, if earthquakes do cluster only because of so-called earthquake-earthquake interactions. If successful earthquakes in a region...

  10. CHAPTER 8 The Heyday
    (pp. 96-107)

    The full story behind the Haicheng prediction remained murky for several decades, and the story did not grab immediate headlines around the world. The scientific community was, of course, well aware that an earthquake of portentous magnitude had struck northern China. And even before Haicheng struck, western seismologists were aware of the active Chinese prediction program. In the months following the earthquake, western scientific circles began to buzz. On February 27, 1975, just weeks after the earthquake, then chairman of the earth and planetary sciences department of MIT Frank Press wrote an op-ed article that appeared in a number of...

  11. CHAPTER 9 The Hangover
    (pp. 108-124)

    Although sold largely on promises of prediction, Congress’s stated purpose for the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) was, “to reduce the risks of life and property from future earthquakes in the United States through the establishment and maintenance of an effective earthquake hazards reduction program.” From the beginning Congress recognized that more than one federal agency could contribute to the NEHRP mission. Today there are four primary NEHRP agencies: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and U.S. Geological Survey. All four agencies play important roles, but...

  12. CHAPTER 10 Highly Charged Debates
    (pp. 125-140)

    While optimism for the prospect of reliable earthquake prediction was fading in the U.S. other dramas were playing out on other shores. On February 24, 1981 a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck Athens, killing sixteen people and injuring thousands. Just as the Sylmar quake had mobilized American scientists a decade earlier, this disaster galvanized the scientific community in Greece. Soon after the earthquake a pair of solid-state physicists, Panayotis Varotsos and Kesser Alexopoulos, began monitoring electrical signals in the earth, reasoning that electrical currents would be generated as stress reached a critical point prior to a large earthquake. A third colleague,...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Reading the Tea Leaves
    (pp. 141-149)

    Details of scientific debates aside, it is an interesting suggestion, that seismologists would turn a willful blind eye to truly promising earthquake prediction research—in particular to any researcher, or even any amateur, who started to establish a track record of clearly successful earthquake predictions.

    So why are seismologists of all people persistently skeptical about, even dismissive of, what other scientists are convinced is promising earthquake prediction research? One simple answer is that, for all of the supposedly promising results, no such track record has been established, by anybody. Proponents of the VAN method claim a small number of supposed...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Accelerating Moment Release
    (pp. 150-157)

    Although the U.S. seismology community remained generally pessimistic about earthquake prediction even a quarter-century after the Palmdale Bulge deflated, researchers besides Keilis-Borok have pursued research focused on the notion that regional activity increases prior to large earthquakes. In particular, while Keilis-Borok’s group developed the M8 and later methods at UCLA, Charlie Sammis and his graduate student David Bowman pursued independent research at cross-town collegiate rival USC, working in collaboration with Geoffrey King in Paris. They focused specifically on testing the hypothesis that activity increases, known in seismological circles as the Accelerating Moment Release, or AMR, hypothesis. TheMhere stands...

  15. CHAPTER 13 On the Fringe
    (pp. 158-170)

    Seismology has the distinction, if one can call it that, of being not only a science that a lot of people care about, but also a science that a lot of people think they can do. In particular, one needs no test tubes, no clinical trials, no computers . . . pretty much nothing but a soap box to step forward with an earthquake prediction. It is a game that, literally, anyone can play.

    It is moreover a game that people have been playing for a very long time. The persistent notion of earthquake weather dates back at least as...

  16. CHAPTER 14 Complicity
    (pp. 171-190)

    Most pseudo-science predictions languish in benign obscurity. Occasionally, however, one makes waves the conventional media, and reputable scientists are called to weigh in. The prediction that Richter described as “pedigreed bunk” was made in late 1968 by Elizabeth Stern, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who had had a vision that California would be destroyed by a giant earthquake by April of 1969. As predictions go it was run of the mill. But this one generated a buzz, and the buzz swelled to a roar when a physics professor at the University of Michigan was quoted in a press release saying that within...

  17. CHAPTER 15 Measles
    (pp. 191-195)

    Looking back at earthquake prediction efforts of the past one can see how both predictions and prediction methods have gone awry. A very small handful of credible predictions appear to have been borne out—among them, Haicheng, the prediction of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake based on the original M8 method, a small number of supposed hits by the VAN method, and the prediction of a small earthquake in upstate New York in 1973. Some respected researchers tout other supposedly successful predictions.

    The first thing that needs to be said is that if one makes enough predictions, by scientists either...

  18. CHAPTER 16 We All Have Our Faults
    (pp. 196-205)

    In a sometimes flamboyant 1876 history of the state of California, Guy McClellan describes the geological paroxysms that had struck other parts of the country and the world, observing that “compared to the earthquakes of other times and countries, California’s earthquakes are but gentle observations.”

    This book focuses on California because, McClellan’s pronouncement notwithstanding, the state has long been a playground for earthquake science and earthquake prediction research. Within the United States, Alaska has more earthquakes and bigger earthquakes, but with its remote location and sparse population cannot match California for either quality or quantity of data or societal impetus...

  19. CHAPTER 17 The Bad One
    (pp. 206-221)

    So what about California, anyway?

    It has been about a century since geologists first followed the trace of the San Andreas Fault in southern California. It has been about a half-century since scientists worked out the theory of plate tectonics, which tells us that the San Andreas is the principle plate boundary fault in California. It has been about a quarter-century since geologists began digging trenches across the fault to piece together chronologies of past earthquakes on the fault.

    Throughout this time, since the earliest days of earthquake exploration in southern California, earthquake predictions have emerged from the pseudo-science community....

  20. CHAPTER 18 Whither Earthquake Prediction?
    (pp. 222-230)

    Are earthquakes predictable? The title of this book implies an answer and suggests a paradox. We cannot say it will always be the case, but, given the state of earthquake science at the present time, earthquakes are unpredictable. On a geological time scale they occur like clockwork; on a human time scale they are vexingly, almost determinedly, irregular. The next Big One in California might be next year, or thirty years from now. It might not happen for one hundred years. Or, as seismologists sometimes point out, it could have happened already and the P-wave hasn’t gotten here yet. (This...

  21. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 231-232)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 233-254)
  23. General Index
    (pp. 255-260)
  24. Index of Earthquakes by Year
    (pp. 261-261)