Can Earthquakes Be Predicted?

By: Robert Lamb  | 
An aerial view of a surface crack along the San Andreas Fault south of San Francisco.
California's San Andreas Fault, south of San Francisco, is a hotbed of seismic activity. Bob Rowan / Getty Images

How does James Bond guess the other guy's hand in a high-stakes game of poker? He looks for a tell, of course. Maybe Bond's opponent twitches when he has a strong hand or tenses when he bluffs. Either way, an observable physical expression gives Bond a clue as to what his opponent has in store. By properly reading a tell, a poker player can minimize his or her losses.

Much like Bond, scientists are trying to find Earth's "tell" when it comes to the looming question: Can earthquakes be predicted?


Just as meteorologists study the atmosphere to forecast the weather, seismologists are on a quest to predict earthquakes. And while we can forecast a hurricane's path days in advance, an accurate earthquake forecast remains, for now, a shaky affair.

Understanding Earth's Mysterious Moves

Humans have long engaged in high-stakes games with the planet. We've made significant strides in predicting weather patterns, but earthquake predictions? They're a different ball game.

Scientists can accurately predict where a major earthquake is likely to occur, based partially on where past earthquakes have taken place. For instance, the Pacific Basin's Ring of Fire belt is a hot spot, accounting for about 80 percent of the world's large earthquakes.


However, while we might know where an earthquake will strike, knowing when is the challenge. Predicting the precise timing is more complex, with some earthquake forecasts being decades off the mark.

Seismic Signals and Patterns

Seismologists are hopeful that by observing overlooked seismic activity and discovering new pre-quake changes, we might inch closer to predicting major earthquakes. There's a growing interest in:

  • Long-term seismocasts: These studies focus on total, ongoing seismic activity in a region rather than just individual fault histories.
  • Silent movers: Slow earthquakes might not create seismic waves, but they affect the stress distribution beneath fault lines. The study of these quakes might hold keys to understanding more violent ones.
  • Electric clues and rocky changes: Recent studies have delved into pre-quake electrical disturbances in the atmosphere and stress-induced changes in rocks.

NASA's QuakeSim Initiative

NASA's QuakeSim project harnesses satellite-based measurements and advanced computation. By feeding traditional seismic data, GPS data and high-precision geodesic radar images into simulation programs, they aim to identify global earthquake hot spots.


From 2000 to 2009, QuakeSim demonstrated varied success in predicting earthquake locations, making it a promising tool in the quest to predict earthquakes [source: NASA].


Long-term vs Short-term Predictions

While many are chasing the dream of a short-term earthquake prediction, other scientists argue that we should prioritize long-term earthquake forecasting. After all, instead of seeking the seismic "Holy Grail," focusing on long-term data can aid in refining building codes and insurance rates that mitigate earthquake hazards.

Will there ever be a day when our technology and understanding of the Earth's crust will allow us to predict an impending earthquake with confidence? While that day isn't here yet, with the strides made in seismic research and the exploration of early warning signs, there's hope in the foreseeable future.


In poker, knowing an opponent's tells can lead to calculated risks. But when human lives are at stake, can we afford to take those risks based on incomplete data? Until we have reliable earthquake early warning systems, the stakes remain too high.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Earthquake Prediction FAQ

Are there earthquake zones besides the famous Ring of Fire?
Yes, there are multiple earthquake zones globally that have experienced at least one significant earthquake, like the East Anatolian Fault.
How do earthquakes occur?
Earthquakes result from the movement of tectonic plates beneath the Earth's surface. Think of it as a slow-motion collision happening right under our feet.
Does the United States Geological Survey (USGS) monitor earthquakes worldwide?
Absolutely! The USGS has a multitude of sensors scattered around the globe, vigilantly monitoring for any potential seismic activities.
Is there any truth to animals predicting earthquakes?
While there's anecdotal evidence of unusual animal behavior preceding earthquakes, there's no scientific consensus on this. However, many tales describe pets acting peculiarly before a quake hits.
How do earthquake early warning systems work?
These systems don't predict future earthquakes per se, but they can provide a warning a few seconds to minutes before the shaking starts, depending on the quake's origin and distance from populated areas.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Brody, Kristina Bartlett. "Shaky Forecasts." Science News. Aug. 29, 2009. (June 1, 2010)
  • Burns, Melinda. "I See a Quake in Your Future. Sometime." Miller-McCune Online. Feb. 16, 2010. (June 1, 2010)
  • "Earthquake." World Book at NASA. Nov. 29, 2007. (June 1, 2010)
  • "Earthquake Forecast Program Has Amazing Success Rate." NASA. Oct. 1, 2004. (June 1, 2010)
  • NASA QuakeSim. Oct. 30, 2009. (June 1, 2010)
  • "Pre-quake changes seen in rocks." BBC News. July 9, 2008. (June 1, 2010)
  • Rincon, Paul. "Plan for quake 'warning system'" BBC News. June 5, 2008.