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Computer Simulations Might Predict Future Earthquakes

Scientists in California are working on an earthquake computer simulation that may help predict devastating earthquakes such as the one in South Asia, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Geologists say they knew that a large earthquake was coming in South Asia, but they did not know when.

The Himalayan Mountains were formed some 150 million years ago after the landmass that is now India broke off from Antarctica, drifted north and collided with the rest of Asia.

Scientists say the South Asian land mass is still moving towards North Asia at the rate of about two centimeters a year, making the area prone to earthquakes.

Harley Benz is a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey earthquake information center. "It's a broad zone of deformation, and across this zone that extends 1,000 kilometers, you have a whole series of faults and folds."

Another earthquake-prone region is along the 1300 kilometer San Andreas Fault in California.

It is here that John Rundle, a physics and engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, is testing his earthquake computer simulation.

"You take these simulations, you turn them on, you run them and you do as good a job as possible in simulating or representing the past history of activity on the fault systems."

Dr. Rundle uses information from tools such as global positioning satellites to create a virtual reality model of thousands of years of earthquake activity along the San Andreas Fault. He says that in the future, this computer model may be able to predict some earthquakes just as hurricane paths are now forecast.

"Our goal is to be able to make forecasts on that kind of time scale and then to improve it to the point where we're actually able to see the preparation process in the months and year or two leading up to a large earthquake," he said.

Dr. Rundle says that several decades from now, one third of the world's population could live in seismically active regions. He hopes that by then, the virtual reality software will help prevent the heavy loss of life caused by tragedies such as the South Asia earthquake.