Earthquake Prediction Rests On Faulty Premise

August 28, 1996

NEW YORK, Aug. 23, 1996--The Japanese government has spent more than $1 billion since 1965 on its earthquake-prediction program. But when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake devastated the city of Kbe last year, the system that was supposed to give an early warning was useless, resulting in 6,300 deaths and nearly $200 billion in damages.

Now after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on similar prediction projects in many other countries, including the U.S., Midori Ashida writes in the cover story of the September/October issue of The Sciences (p.15) that most seismologists have concluded that making reliable short-term predictions of earthquakes is nearly impossible.

To be sure, advances in technology have made it possible to measure subtle changes in the earth's seismic activity. But no theory has been formulated, nor have any precursor events been identified, that have proved any better at predicting earthquakes than flipping a coin. According to The Sciences, national policy makers would be better advised to redirect most of the funds now spent on earthquake prediction to the development of more thorough disaster management plans and tighter building codes.

One big danger of prediction systems, Professor Robert J. Geller of Tokyo University tellsThe Sciences, "is that there is a tendency to assume that particular regions are especially dangerous. That has the effect of concentrating earthquake disaster mitigation efforts, rather than spreading them out over an entire region of similar geological and seismic type." Take Kbe, for instance. The city was not even included in Japan's detection system because the predictors thought the next big quake would strike elsewhere. Their assurances lulled Kbe into complacency, and chaos ensued when the disaster struck.

In fact, according to The Sciences, the only marginally credible claim for successful earthquake prediction was made by Chinese seismologists in 1975, and that claim has been widely questioned by experts outside China. False alarms, however, have been plentiful. And a magnitude six quake, predicted to hit Parkfield, Calif. in 1988 has still not been felt.
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