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Is it possible to predict an earthquake: why no one knew about the impending disaster in Turkey in advance

Earthquakes account for almost half of all deaths from natural disasters in almost two decades. Why is it so difficult to predict a catastrophe? TheWashington Post.

Photo: IStock

Buildings collapsed within seconds of a 7,8 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of February 6. Rescuers had to struggle to find survivors under the rubble.

The horror of the near-instantaneous destruction begs the question: why was no one aware of the approaching earthquake?

On the subject: What could be the strongest earthquake on the planet, and what is the chance of its occurrence

The answer is complex. Many geologists say it's almost impossible to accurately predict an earthquake because of the sheer complexity of analyzing the entire crust of the planet. Others say a host of new technologies, including artificial intelligence that can help make predictions faster and more accurately, and smartphones that can instantly send alerts and warn people to seek shelter, could help save lives.

But even the most promising efforts offer only seconds or, in some rare cases, minutes of advance notice, making timely evacuations difficult. Earth science experts say a future in which technology more accurately predicts the location, time and strength of earthquakes seems far off, and inaccurate estimates could do more harm than good.

Find Signals

“Earthquakes happen very quickly,” said Christine Goulet, director of the US Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Research Center. “It’s fair to say that at the moment we are not able to predict earthquakes at all.”

The plate movements that underlie earthquakes are slow, and ruptures often occur suddenly, creating earthquakes that wreak havoc.

Major earthquakes, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, came as a surprise. To prevent wrong assumptions, geologists began to focus on the likelihood of an earthquake rather than trying to predict individual events.

Scientists use geological measurements, seismic machine data, and historical records to highlight areas at risk from an earthquake, and then use statistical models to estimate the likelihood that one will occur in the future.

But unlike weather forecasting, which has improved with computing power, mathematical models, and the advent of drones and satellites, the quality of earthquake prediction has lagged behind.

Over the past half century, scientists have tried to predict earthquakes using several methods, but without much success.

In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers set out to find signals that could precede earthquakes by studying a hodgepodge of signals such as animal behavior, radon emissions, and electromagnetic signals. At times, the results showed patterns, but none were reliable enough to meet scientific scrutiny, said John Rundle, professor of physics and geology at the University of California, Davis.

In the 1980s, seismic scientists said that a section of the San Andreas Fault near Parkfield, California should have triggered an earthquake and analyzed a wealth of historical data to predict it. They figured an earthquake would happen by 1993, but that didn't happen until 2004, when it swept through central California without warning.

According to Rundle, this was "kind of a death knell" for earthquake prediction, prompting many scientists to focus more on statistical models and probability estimates rather than weather forecasting.

But as technology has continued to advance, earthquake early warning systems have evolved. These networks use seismological machines to detect and analyze shocks and connect to a system that sends notifications to people seconds before an earthquake hits.

ShakeAlert, a system created by the USGS, can send an alert to a person's phone, giving them about 20 seconds to a minute of advance warning before an earthquake.

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The technology collects data from USGS field station sensors that measure the intensity of ground shaking. When a station detects an earthquake, computers can calculate station data and within five seconds predict where the quake will go.

Cellular operators can then issue alerts to users in the intended area. The system works because internet and cell phone signals travel at the speed of light, much faster than the slow pace at which earthquake waves travel through rock.

But according to several earthquake experts, it is very difficult to provide more than a few seconds of warning. Accurate prediction of earthquakes will require extensive mapping and analysis of the earth's crust, including marking each stress point in order to carefully track which ones may be close to breaking.

The experts added that there is also an element of randomness in an earthquake, which can sometimes occur without any warning signs. Even if the technology shows promise, many scientists fear that a product released prematurely without rigorous testing and validation reduces people's confidence in the technology.

“False alarms are almost worse than correct predictions,” Rundle said. “Because then people lose faith in the system.”

Help AI

Researchers are also turning to artificial intelligence, using machine learning software that processes large amounts of data and uncovers patterns. The hope, experts say, is for the software to quickly analyze more data than humans to help them better understand what precedes earthquakes in order to spot more warning signs.

Rundle said scientists feed arrays of data, from seismological readings to radar data about how the Earth's surface is deforming, to machine learning models to better predict the time and location of future earthquakes.

But even if the technology is mastered, it is unlikely to be incredibly accurate. At best, scientists could probably predict the location of an earthquake within about 965 km within a few years.

More detailed information is unlikely, he said, because there is still insufficient data on past earthquakes.

“Earthquake data has only become automated and digital in the last 25 or 30 years,” he said. “Therefore, we are working with data that was rather incomplete before.”
Alternative theories of earthquake prediction have also emerged, but many of them should be treated with skepticism, seismologists say.

One controversial method is based on the study of the alignment of the planets. A researcher from the Netherlands on February 6 used this method to accurately predict the details of the Turkish earthquake several days in advance.

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Goulet said there are all sorts of unsubstantiated and unexplored earthquake prediction methods, adding that if these results are analyzed over a long period of time, there is no real element of predictability that a scientific approach can withstand.

“I don’t know anyone who has repeatedly made reliable predictions,” Goulet said. “If it were that easy, we would do it.”

As ForumDaily wrote earlier:

  • Strong earthquake happened in central Turkey and northwestern Syria on February 6.
  • The number of victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria exceeded 5 thousand: Thousands of people remain under the rubble.

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