The Frustrating Science of Earthquake Prediction

Today our guest blogger is Dr. Stephen Malone, a Research Professor Emeritus, from the University of Washington. In today’s post, Dr. Malone discusses the predictability of earthquakes and volcanoes. He will be giving an in depth lecture on the topic at Rice University on Tuesday, November 16 at 5:30 p.m.

While there are many successful cases of reliably predicting volcanic eruptions, the case for predicting earthquakes is not encouraging.   Thus far science has not developed reliable techniques or tools to predict earthquakes.  Despite this situation the press and public often expect or even demand predictions.  The pressure on seismologists increased recently when a criminal law suit was brought against several Italian seismologists and civil protection officials for not predicting the devastating L’Aquila earthquake of spring, 2009 in which 300 people died.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Waifer X

What is a seismologist to do? Actually, for most of us, trying to predict specific earthquakes is not high on our priority list for current research topics.  Research into the fundamental physics of the earthquake source is basic to many projects and some day may lead to successful predictions.  Volcanoes, on the other hand, are quite cooperative in giving fairly easy-to-recognize indications of approaching violence.  Signs of unrest are usually first recognized by seismologists giving us a smug feeling of understanding a complex geophysical phenomenon better than our fellow earth scientists.  Of course, volcanoes throw a variety of eruption precursory signs out that can result in a variety of types of eruptions.  Just when we think we understand what is going on things change to surprise us.  Still, eruption prediction is maturing and it is gratifying to know that our science is being used to actually save lives.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Unfortunately, earthquakes are far more hazardous than volcanoes since strong ones can occur in many parts of the world, particularly places where earthquake resistant building construction is not up to the task.  Attempts to predict specific earthquakes are many, yet it seems that no more than would be expected from random chance are successful.   There are a few lines of inquiry that may provide for slight improvement in the statistical success of prediction, but most of us hate claiming success based on the statistics of small numbers.

In the last ten years a new geophysical phenomenon has been discovered that may help us to understand the source of large earthquakes and therefore contribute to future successful predictions.  This phenomenon is called “Episodic Tremor and Slip” (ETS).  First discovered in Japan using a new generation of very sensitive seismographs, we have also detected it in the US, first in the Pacific Northwest and then in Alaska and California.  This very subtle phenomenon may be much more pervasive than first thought, and may lead us to a very new and better understanding of the earthquake initiation process.  ETS can be seen both seismically and geodetically and thus requires the cooperation of different science communities to really understand it.

This potpourri of prediction science will be covered in much more detail at Rice University on Tuesday, November 16, 2010.  To RSVP or for questions, please contact Janice Trojan at or 713-348-5824.

Wiess School of Natural Sciences
Dean’s Lecture Series
Predicting Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions: What we can and can’t do
Dr. Stephen Malone, Research Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Tuesday, November 16 @ 5:30pm
Rice University
Duncan Hall – McMurtry Auditorium

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