Earthquake Forecasting: Beyond Chicken Little

At the frontiers of geology, scientists are developing new, physics-based models that will help us forecast and prepare for devastating earthquakes.

This idea was suggested by Big Think Delphi Fellow Brendan Meade


What’s the Big Idea?

Snap! Crrrunch. Groan . . . That’s the sound of the Earth changing beneath you. Above the seething, molten core, massive tectonic plates split, grind against, and impact one another with unimaginable force. Energy builds up, sometimes over millenia, and is released suddenly in the form of earthquakes.

In human terms, the cost can be devastating: the magnitude 9.0 earthquake near Japan in March created a tsunami that left 24,000 dead or missing and did billions of dollars in damage. Running for 25 miles directly under Los Angeles, the Puente Hills fault has experienced four massive earthquakes in the past 11,000 years. It will almost certainly rupture again.

When, however, is a tough call. By studying individual faults, seismologists are accurately able to pinpoint “hotspots” where future earthquakes are likely to occur. But the science of forecasting earthquake timing and magnitude lags far behind, relying on theoretical models which turn out to be woefully incomplete.

According to Harvard professor Brendan Meade, the lithosphere––the earth’s solid crust––is evolving much faster than previously supposed. Earlier models linked changes in the lithosphere to convection in the Earth’s plastic outer mantle, or aesthenosphere. But this movement does not fully account for what’s happening on the surface. A myriad of other factors are involved, including rock composition, gravity, and the complex interplay of stresses throughout the tectonic system.
At the frontiers of seismology, scientists are extending what they know about the physics of individual fault lines to explain the behavior of the lithosphere as a whole.
                       

IMAGE: GPS base stations are located at fixed, known coordinates. The movement of the base stations is tracked over time in three dimensions, demonstrating the deformation of land due to geological and seismic events. Parts of Southern California, on the San Andreas fault line, are shifting 30mm/yr.

What’s the Significance?  

Earthquakes don’t happen in a vacuum. Fault lines are part of larger fault networks, which are themselves a feature of the lithosphere. When, and how fast, an individual fault will slip or rupture depends on what’s happening elsewhere in the system.

Istanbul, Tokyo, Mexico City, New Delhi . . . across the globe, major cities sprawl over deadly fault lines. The development of new, more comprehensive models of lithospheric movement will enable geologists to forecast more accurately the location, magnitude, and timing of major earthquakes. Such forecasts are key to saving human lives and reducing the global economic impact of seismic events. The new models will also inform the science of structural engineering, resulting in homes and buildings better designed to withstand seismic shock. In the words of Dr. James Dolan, a geologist at the University of Southern California, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.”

It may be a while before mainstream earthquake prediction can claim the numerical precision of, say, radio evangelist Harold Camping (whose May 21 date for the “devastating global earthquake”  that would signal the Rapture has since been revised to October 21). But these advances in seismology will profoundly change the way we understand, and live upon, the earth’s surface.

VIDEO:  This animated model, from the Southern California Earthquake Center, shows in unprecedented detail the more than 300 fault lines under Southern California. The Puente Hills thrust fault, a site of intense energy buildup, lies directly under Northern Los Angeles.

Watch here:

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Why 'upgrading' humanity is a transhumanist myth

Upload your mind? Here's a reality check on the Singularity.

Videos
  • Though computer engineers claim to know what human consciousness is, many neuroscientists say that we're nowhere close to understanding what it is, or its source.
  • Scientists are currently trying to upload human minds to silicon chips, or re-create consciousness with algorithms, but this may be hubristic because we still know so little about what it means to be human.
  • Is transhumanism a journey forward or an escape from reality?
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica

A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.

(Goldstein Lab/Wkikpedia/Tigerspaws/Big Think)
Surprising Science
  • Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
  • The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
  • Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
Keep reading Show less