News / Asia

    Scientists Question Quake Map Prediction Methodology

    Tokyo University professor Robert Geller points to a poster of a soon-to-be-published document he co-authored asserting characteristic earthquake models developed in the past should be considered dead and buried. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)
    Tokyo University professor Robert Geller points to a poster of a soon-to-be-published document he co-authored asserting characteristic earthquake models developed in the past should be considered dead and buried. (Photo: VOA/Steve Herman)
    TOKYO — Some high profile researchers in the earth sciences are questioning several long-standing assumptions about predicting earthquakes. They contend it is time for a major reassessment on the methods used to forecast where and when killer earthquakes will strike.

    Failure

    Three recent major earthquakes: in Sichuan, China in 2008, in the Caribbean  nation of Haiti in 2010 and in northeastern Japan last year - have led to what some scientists acknowledge is an embarrassing failure.

    They did not foresee such intense tremors would cause widespread destruction and casualties in those specific locations.

    Tsunami rubble, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (Photo by Mark Edward Harris)
    Tsunami rubble, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (Photo by Mark Edward Harris)
    Even in Japan, with state-of-the-art seismological and tsunami research and sophisticated hazard mapping, the size of the March 11 quake and the resulting tsunami were vastly underestimated.

    Earth sciences professor Seth Stein at Northwestern University in Chicago says that was a sobering day for his field.

    "One, our ability to assess earthquake hazards isn't very good," noted Stein. "And, second, the policies that we make to mitigate earthquake hazards sometimes aren't very well thought out in terms of whatever tens or a hundred billion dollars were spent on those tsunami defenses were largely wasted."

    Expect the unexpected

    Tokyo University seismologist Robert Geller is among co-authors, with Stein, of a new article intent on debunking some standard assumptions in their field, such as earthquakes occur in cycles.

    "Many earth scientists still continue out of intellectual inertia to use terms like 'seismic cycle' or 'characteristic earthquake' or 'earthquake cycle" or things like that. So we've become prisoners to some extent of terms we use," explained Geller. "It's time for the field of seismology and earthquake science to rethink some of the basic precepts."

    Geller says his colleagues around the world need to re-learn "to expect the unexpected" when it comes to earthquakes.

    "Unfortunately we don't, at the present time, have the scientific ability to make specific predictions in their immediate advance, or, let's say, years in advance," he said. "All of those various kinds of predictions have in fact been made, but they usually don't work out."

    Geller has a closet filled with publications,  produced by scientists and charlatans alike, proclaiming earthquake forecasting methods, all of which he has made an effort over the years to debunk.

    Limitations

    Rescue teams search for victims in the earthquake-stricken village of Varzaqan near Ahar, in East Azerbaijan province, August 12, 2012.
    Rescue teams search for victims in the earthquake-stricken village of Varzaqan near Ahar, in East Azerbaijan province, August 12, 2012.
    At Northwestern University's Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Stein says, in hindsight, it was probably a mistake to rush with such enthusiasm into earthquake hazards mapping without noting the limitations.

    "Now we've got these maps out there. Every country has a government agency that makes these maps and engineers look at them," Stein noted. "There's some good sense in them, but there's a lot of problems with them too and the uncertainties in there are a lot bigger than we use to think they were."

    Geller sees some of those hazard maps as a hazard, themselves.

    "They're based on one assumption piled on top of another. If you treat them as being something you can literally rely on as extremely accurate then you're in trouble," he said.

    Better maps

    That has led to a greater awareness about creating better hazard maps and the scientists are trying to figure out how to do that.

    Meanwhile, Stein acknowledges that nature has the upper hand.

    "We're playing a game against nature. It's a very high stakes game," Stein said. "We don't really understand all the rules very well. We need to very carefully try to formulate the best strategies we can, given the limits of our knowledge."

    One answer lies with more fully analyzing the existing data, going back much farther in time.

    Eyewitness accounts from historical times, combined with geological sampling will produce more accurate records of where and when huge waves triggered by the biggest quakes struck the coasts of Japan and other countries.

    Geller says those methods possibly could prevent future tragedies.

    "These mega tsunamis, you had three of them in 3,000 years, once every thousand years or so. So, if you have a nuclear plant with a 50-year operating lifetime you're talking about a five percent chance of a mega tsunami [during the plant's operation]," Geller explained. "So that's enough [of a chance] that you should worry about it."

    New policies

    Geller is disappointed that not much has changed in Japan after March 2011 when it comes to reassessing assumptions and making new policies on disaster mitigation.

    Geller had warned, before last year's magnitude 9.0 quake, that it was flawed to assume locations such as the coast of Fukushima were at lower risk for such huge temblors.

    "I'm not really happy about that. I wish I hadn't been correct," he said. "There's not much pleasure in saying 'I told you so' when so many people lost their lives or their houses or the nuclear accident caused the evacuation and so on."

    Interior of No. 4 reactor building at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, Futaba District, Japan, Nov. 8, 2011.
    Interior of No. 4 reactor building at TEPCO's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, Futaba District, Japan, Nov. 8, 2011.
    Wednesday, Japan's government significantly increased its estimate of the death toll should a historic quake hit the central and western part of the country, similar in intensity to the one in the Tohoku region last March.

    The cabinet office's central disaster prevention council now estimates such a big temblor could kill up to 323,000 people with most of the deaths being caused by a resulting tsunami, just as was the case in 2011. But it says, echoing something heard prior to last year's disaster, that the probability of such a powerful quake along the Nankai Trough is “extremely low.”

    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

    You May Like

    Video Twists and Turns Aplenty in US Presidential Race

    Even as Americans pause for this week’s Memorial Day holiday, much attention is focused on the presidential contest

    China's Education Reforms Spark Protest

    Beijing is putting a quota system in place to increase the number of students from poor regions attending universities

    The Struggle With Painkillers: Treating Pain Without Feeding Addiction

    'Wonder drug' pain medications have turned out to be major problem: not only do they run high risk of addicting the user, but they can actually make patients' chronic pain worse, US CDC says

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora