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The physics of earthquake forecasting

February 29, 2012

One year on from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that unleashed a devastating tsunami and caused a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, this month's special issue of Physics World, on the theme of "Physics and the Earth", includes an investigation by journalist Edwin Cartlidge into the latest advances in earthquake forecasting.

In addition to the special issue, physicsworld.com hosts an exclusive video documentary reviewing the fundamental science behind earthquakes and assessing the current efforts that are being made around the world to forecast these events. From Monday 27 February the video can be viewed here http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/multimedia/48784.

The huge responsibility that comes with assessing the likelihood of earthquakes was never more evident than in March 2009, when a group of 11 Italian scientists met to discuss the risk of a powerful earthquake striking the town of L'Aquila, after a swarm of small quakes had hit the area continuously for four months.

After concluding that there were no grounds for alarm, a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the town on 6 April that year, leaving 308 people dead. Now, seven of those 11 scientists are on trial for manslaughter.

Thomas Jordan, chairman of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF), argues in Physics World that the tragedy at L'Aquila highlights how vital it is for us to understand which are the most reliable types of forecasting, so that we have the best possible information at our fingertips.

Finding specific, natural events that may flag up an impending earthquake has been given a lot of thought; for example, a long-standing idea is that animals flee a specific area after somehow sensing an upcoming quake.

These precursors are unconvincing, however; and while we are unlikely to ever be able to predict precisely when, where and with what magnitude particular earthquakes will strike, much can be gained from short-term "probabilistic" forecasting, which can give the odds that an earthquake above a certain size will occur within a given area and time.

Still, these short-term "probabilistic" methods have their limitations, as was demonstrated a year ago this month when even the most up-to-date models did not predict the Japanese earthquake.

"This approach is tricky because no-one can quite agree on which are the best models. So, we have uncertainty on uncertainty. But can we ignore the information that they give us? The earthquakes in L'Aquila and New Zealand taught us we don't have that luxury," says Jordan.

The special issue of Physics World can be downloaded as a PDF free of charge from Thursday 8 March at physicsworld.com.

Also in this issue


  • Lessons from Fukushima -- Mike Weightman, UK's chief inspector of nuclear installations -- discusses what we can learn from last year's nuclear incident

  • Physics and fracking -- journalist Jon Cartwright examines how physicists can help assess the controversial process of releasing gas from shale by pumping sand and chemicals in at high pressures

  • The Earth from afar -- a set of stunning images of our planet produced using a range of visualization techniques

  • Prospecting with geoneutrinos -- how tiny almost massless neutrinos, generated from radioactive decay deep within the Earth, could shed light on the interior of our planet

  • When north moves south -- could the movement of tectonic plates explain the variation in the rate of reversal of the Earth's magnetic field?

  • A pressing matter -- studies of the conditions deep inside our planet suggest that its core may contain immense crystals of iron up to 10 km long

-end-


IOP Publishing

Related Earthquake Articles:

From where will the next big earthquake hit the city of Istanbul?
Scientists reckon with an earthquake with a magnitude of 7 or greater in this region in the coming years.
Dissection of the 2015 Bonin deep earthquake
Researchers at Tohoku University's Department of Geophysics, have been studying the deep earthquake which occurred on May 30, 2015, to the west of Japan's Bonin Islands.
The search for the earthquake nucleus
Where a tectonic plate dives under another, in the so-called subduction zones at ocean margins, many strong earthquakes occur.
Better understanding post-earthquake fault movement
Preparation and good timing enabled Gareth Funning and a team of researchers to collect a unique data set following the 2014 South Napa earthquake that showed different parts of the fault, sometimes only a few kilometers apart, moved at different speeds and at different times.
The maximum earthquake magnitude for North Turkey
The Istanbul metropolitan region faces a high probability for a large earthquake in the near future.
Double dose of bad earthquake news
A team of researchers, including one from the University of California, Riverside, has discovered that earthquake ruptures can jump much further than previously thought, a finding that could have severe implications on the Los Angeles area and other regions in the world.
Discovery of hidden earthquake presents challenge to earthquake early-warning systems
Seismologists at the University of Liverpool studying the 2011 Chile earthquake have discovered a previously undetected earthquake which took place seconds after the initial rupture.
Babe Ruth and earthquake hazard maps
Northwestern University researchers have turned to an unusual source -- Major League Baseball -- to help learn why maps used to predict shaking in future earthquakes often do poorly.
Earthquake rupture halted by seamounts
Experts expected for some time that one of the next mega earthquakes occurs off northern Chile.
Catastrophic landslides post-earthquake
In the last few months, it has once more become clear that large earthquakes can solicit catastrophic landsliding.

Related Earthquake Reading:

Earthquakes (Smithsonian-science)
by Seymour Simon (Author)

Earthquakes (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2)
by Dr. Franklyn M. Branley (Author), Megan Lloyd (Illustrator)

Earthquakes (True Books: Earth Science (Paperback))
by Ker Than (Author)

Quakeland: On the Road to America's Next Devastating Earthquake
by Kathryn Miles (Author)

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet
by Henry Fountain (Author)

Earthquake Terror (Puffin Novel)
by Peg Kehret (Author)

I Survived the San Francisco Earthquake, 1906 (I Survived #5)
by Lauren Tarshis (Author), Scott Dawson (Illustrator)

Earthquakes! (TIME FOR KIDS Nonfiction Readers)
by Teacher Created Materials (Author)

Earthquakes: Geology and Weather (Science Readers)
by Teacher Created Materials (Author)

National Geographic Kids Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes: Earthshaking photos, facts, and fun!
by Kathy Furgang (Author)

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