Why is it so Hard to Predict Earthquakes?
The horror of the near-instant destruction that Turkey and Syria are now experiencing raises again the question of why no one knew the earthquake was coming.
The answer is difficult. The ability to predict where and when an earthquake will occur has eluded mankind for centuries. For scientists, the challenge is also great because earthquakes cause almost half of all deaths from natural disasters in the last almost two decades, according to the World Health Organization.
"Washington Post" recalls that, according to many geologists, it is almost impossible to predict exactly when there will be an earthquake due to the extreme complexity of the analysis of the entire crust of the planet. Others say a range of new technologies - including artificial intelligence for faster and more accurate predictions and smartphones that can instantly send alerts and warn people to take cover - could help save lives.
In the 1980s, earthquake scientists said that a segment of the San Andreas Fault in California was overdue for an earthquake, and they analyzed a lot of historical data to predict it. They figured an earthquake wouldn't hit until 1993, but it didn't until 2004 — when it ripped through central California without warning.
But a future in which technology more accurately predicts the location, timing and strength of an earthquake seems years away, and inaccurate estimates could do more harm than good.
Here are the main issues:
- the movements of the plates that underlie earthquakes happen slowly, and the ruptures between them happen suddenly, and science is currently unable to predict them at all
- to avoid false assumptions, geologists have begun to focus on earthquake risk zones rather than trying to predict a specific event
- over the past half century, scientists have tried to predict earthquakes using several methods, including signals such as animal behavior, radon emissions, and electromagnetic signals, and have failed
- as technology has advanced, early warning systems have developed with seismological equipment to detect and analyze tremors
- but providing advance information for more than a few seconds is very difficult because precise forecasting needs extensive mapping and analysis of the Earth's crust and marking each stress point to carefully track which ones may be close to rupture
- finally, there is also an element of randomness when an earthquake occurs, which can sometimes strike without any advance warning.
The ShakeAlert system, created by the USGS, can send a notification to the phone, giving roughly 20 seconds to a minute of advance notice. The technology pulls data from USGS field station sensors that measure the intensity of the ground's "wobble." When a station detects an earthquake, computers can calculate the data from it and predict within five seconds where the tremor will go.
Cell operators can then issue warnings to users in the potential area. The system works because internet and mobile signals travel much faster than the rate at which earthquake waves travel through rock.
Even if the technology is promising, many scientists fear that a product will be brought to market early without rigorous testing and fail. And false alarms make people distrust technology.
Recently, artificial intelligence has been used, but even this is unlikely to yield an incredibly accurate prediction, as the amount of data available on past earthquakes is still lacking - the automated and digitized records are only 25-30 years old, and the program needs them.
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