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, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Phone, Internet Surveillance

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid