Will earthquakes ever be predictable?

Reading Between the Fault Lines to Predict Earthquakes

Many seismologists believe the key to accurate quake predictions lies in observing previously overlooked seismic activity and discovering new pre-quake changes.

For instance, some scientists are moving away from the study of individual fault histories and are instead looking at the total, ongoing seismic activity in a given area. These studies are called long-term seismocasts.

Other researchers look to slow earthquakes, which are too weak to create seismic waves, but affect stress distribution beneath fault lines nonetheless. In recent years, studies have focused on the pre-quake electrical disturbances in the atmosphere and stress-induced changes in rocks.

NASA's QuakeSim project attempts to tackle the problem through the use of satellite-based measurements and cutting-edge computation. The researchers collect hundreds of thousands of measurements, entailing GPS data and high-precision geodesic radar images, in addition to traditional seismic data. Next, they feed the data into simulation programs that seek out patterns in the readings to create a worldwide map of earthquake hot spots. In addition to advancing our understanding of earthquake formation, QuakeSim has also demonstrated varying accuracy in predicting earthquake locations between 2000 and 2009 [source: NASA].

Other seismologists maintain that long-term forecasts are a better investment. Instead of seeking the Holy Grail of seismic research, they argue, we should devote that energy to improving the data that goes into building codes and insurance rates [source: Brody].

After all, reading an opponent's tells enables a poker player to take greater short term risks. When human lives are at stake instead of chips, it's difficult to rationalize that sort of strategy.

Explore the links below to learn even more about Earth's mysteries.

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  • Brody, Kristina Bartlett. "Shaky Forecasts." Science News. Aug. 29, 2009. (June 1, 2010)http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/46373/title/Shaky_Forecasts
  • Burns, Melinda. "I See a Quake in Your Future. Sometime." Miller-McCune Online. Feb. 16, 2010. (June 1, 2010)http://www.miller-mccune.com/science-environment/i-see-a-quake-in-your-future-sometime-7157/
  • "Earthquake." World Book at NASA. Nov. 29, 2007. (June 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/worldbook/earthquake_worldbook.html
  • "Earthquake Forecast Program Has Amazing Success Rate." NASA. Oct. 1, 2004. (June 1, 2010)http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/0930_earthquake.html
  • NASA QuakeSim. Oct. 30, 2009. (June 1, 2010)http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2003/11aug_earthquakes/
  • "Pre-quake changes seen in rocks." BBC News. July 9, 2008. (June 1, 2010)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7497672.stm
  • Rincon, Paul. "Plan for quake 'warning system'" BBC News. June 5, 2008.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7435324.stm