Earthquakes aren’t predictable, the U.S. Geological Survey says : NPR
Ilyas Akenigin/AFP via Getty Images
No scientist has “ever predicted a major earthquake,” the US Geological Survey says. It is a point that bears repeating: On the same day a 7.8 earthquake and a series of aftershocks caused thousands of deaths in Turkey and Syria, social media was abuzz with false claims that the cataclysm was predicted only days ago.
It’s the latest case of someone getting attention for making “scattering statements and predictions” that may appear to have been backed up, Susan Hough, a seismologist in the Earthquake Hazards Program at the USGS, she told NPR.
“So, yes, it’s a set clock that’s right twice a day, basically,” she said.
Millions see warning tweet from ‘earthquake mystic’
As news of the tragedy spread across southern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday, millions of people also saw a tweet from February 3 warning that a strong earthquake would hit the same area. The viral message was from a Dutch man named Frank Hoogerbeets.
If his name rings a bell, it may be because of the also famous Hoogerbeets requested in 2015 to know the exact date that California would be hit by The Big One: May 28, 2015. At that time, he urged people to have an escape plan ready, warning of a deep earthquake dangerous of a power of 8.8 or higher.
In his most recent warning, Hoogerbeets tweeted, “Sooner or later there will be an earthquake of ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (southern Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon ).” He included a map, which shows a red circle roughly on the same area where the earthquake hit.
But the place is a site of frequent activity: it is where three tectonic plates converge. As sad as human distress is, the powerful earthquake “wasn’t a shock to any earthquake scientist,” Hough said. “Turkey is a known area of earthquakes. We know about these faults, we know that earthquakes of this size are possible.”
Hoogerbeets did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for a response to the scientists who question his claims.
In the past, Hoogerbeets was described as an amateur earthquake “enthusiast” and “earthquake mystique” who believes that the movement of the planets in our solar system can help us predict earthquakes. In response to naysayers, Hoogerbeets acknowledged “a lot of resistance within the scientific community regarding the influence of the planets and the Moon” on seismic activity on Earth. He considered that attitude “assumption,” support his position by sharing an image of a 1959 letter to the editor in Nature magazine.
The USGS is unequivocal: No one can predict an earthquake.
“We don’t know how, and we don’t expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future,” says the agency. “USGS scientists can only calculate the probability of a significant earthquake occurring (shown on our hazard mapping) in a specific field in a certain number of years.”
Monday’s earthquake and dozens of strong aftershocks hit an area that is known to be seismically active: It is in an area characterized by a “triple junction,” the point where three tectonic plates meet (in this case, the -plates of Anatolia, Arabia and Africa). Three years ago, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 struck in an area northeast of this devastating earthquake.
The USGS encourages people to consider the three elements that make up a genuine and accurate earthquake forecast: date and time, location and magnitude. Hoogerbeets warning of an earthquake that will strike sooner or later falls well short of the first requirement.
Hough says she is among those who saw the tweet from Hoogerbeets. And while studying planetary alignments, she says that others have claimed that ionospheric disturbances can somehow indicate a pending earthquake.
“You keep getting these supposedly promising results, but no one has established a track record of reliable predictions,” she said. “If something was popping up, the proof would be in the pudding. Someone would be able to predict earthquakes reliably with a record, and the whole world would notice if someone could do that. Nobody has .”
Hoogerbeets rejects USGS criteria; the website for its operation, the Solar System Geometry Survey, he says it is “unrealistic” to require an earthquake forecast to be so specific.
Earthquake experts emphasize preparation, not prediction
“Foresight really isn’t the name of the game in this business,” Hough said. “We want the building to remain standing.”
That aspect of the field focuses on things like engineering and construction methods. Scientists and others are also working to improve preparedness and early warning systems, hoping to prevent worst-case scenarios from unfolding.
“One of my colleagues told me years ago that we can predict earthquakes to the extent we need to,” she said. “We know that they will happen, and we know that certain parts of the world will be exposed to them and that we just need to build the environment accordingly.”
With enough sensors and a sophisticated computer network, Hough says, emergency systems can also send a quick warning that an earthquake has started.
“It’s like the difference between lightning and thunder,” she said, describing the way a message in an alarm system can travel faster than the speed of shaking. And in the event of a potential disaster, even 10 seconds can make a big difference.
“It’s not going to help your building. You know, you give somebody 10 seconds of warning, the building will rise, or it won’t,” Hough said. “But there are protective actions you can take with a very short notice. There are systems that slow down trains, for example. You can move the elevators to the nearest floor and open the doors so they don’t get stuck.”
“You can just remove that horrible element of unpredictability,” she said, that people find scary.
And then there are the buildings themselves. The scale of the damage is still being calculated in Turkey and Syria. But in the footage of communities devastated by earthquakes and aftershocks, Hough said, there are clues that could help prevent future losses: Some structure is still standing, right next to a building that suffered a horrific collapse.
“And that tells you that you can design and build a building that stays standing.”