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

China’s Influence Grows With New Infrastructure Bank

Multibillion-dollar China-backed and BRICS-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seen as possible challenger to such lenders as IMF, World Bank More

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

Rabbi Michel Serfaty makes the rounds in his friendship bus to encourage dialogue and break down barriers between the two groups More

Post-deal Iran Leaders Need 'Economic Momentum' to Solidify Power Base

Economists say deal could inject more than $100 billion into coffers - not enough to entirely rescue ailing economy - but maybe adequate to create 'economic momentum' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs