Earthquake prediction: if only

Because both Ole and Kim have already provided astute and insightful commentary, there’s no real need for me to spend much time on the media storm surrounding Giampaolo Giuliani, who has been loudly claiming vindication after his warnings about an imminent earthquake in the region were shut down by the Italian authorities at the end of March. Suffice to say, one successful “prediction” (if you count within a week and 30 km as successful) does not a robust warning system make: making the leap from elevated radon levels – or any of the other proposed precursors, like low frequency EM radiation – to a useful prediction is fraught with as-yet-unsolved problems. Chief among these are distinguishing false positives (you get the precursor, but no big earthquake) and understanding what, exactly, these signals are telling us about the stress state of the crust, so we can pin down potential magnitudes and timescales beyond “somewhere around here, maybe sometime soon.”
Any geologist would be celebrating a genuine, proven, method of earthquake prediction: but we’re clearly not there yet. Right now, the best we can get is a hazy view of tectonic storm clouds building on the horizon, and we lack even the equivalent of a barometer, let alone advanced tools like weather satellites, to give us a more specific forecast. It would be irresponsible to claim otherwise.

Categories: earthquakes, geohazards, geology

Comments (4)

  1. _Arthur says:

    Even if some degree of prediction was possible, the politico-social consequences noght make the tool grossly unpractical.
    Imagine the prediction: “based on the indicators: there is a 25% chance that a quake of a magnitude between 5.6 and 6.2 may hit this city within 2 months”.
    Many would leave the city, many would not because they cannot afford to, or are willing to take the risk.
    If the quake does not happen (75% odds), the next prediction will get ignored.
    When a quake finally hits, the authorities will get blamed for not having evacuated the city.
    Unless the predictor is accurate and reliable, it would be a political nightmare.

  2. Zack says:

    A guy named Luke Thomas has been making tons of earthquake predictions for California for years. Since the recent 5.4 in LA, he’s been getting a lot more attention. I’ve been looking around for some educated second opinions on his predictions, but I haven’t had any luck. Can one of you fine folks take a look at his site? It’s — he’s predicting that we’ll get a 6+ in the next three days, so I’m certainly hoping he’s wrong! (And no, I’m not too worried.)

  3. Nick says:

    I don’t know Chris… I mean, your point’s taken about an actual hazard-focused ‘prediction’ system, but Giuliani’s prediction seems pretty amazing to me. You bet if some established seismologist was within a week and 30 km away there’d be glossy-covered Nature articles about it etc…