Predicting Earthquakes

Predicting Earthquakes Satellite image of southern California showing superposed fault lines
Image Credit: USGS.gov

A master model of Southern California geology can help predict earthquakes.


Finding future earthquakes. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Scientists at the Southern California Earthquake Center are developing a tool to predict the next big one. They call it the master model, and UCLA researcher David Jackson heads up the project.

So the master model is a way of integrating geological information on faults. So it's putting all these pieces of the puzzle in together to a have kind of a predictive model of future earthquake occurrence.

Seven years ago, Jackson and his colleagues used the model to predict how many large quakes would occur there over a 30-year period. While the model predicted that about five such quakes should have rocked the region by now, they've had only one. Still, Jackson says the tool will prove useful as it's refined over the years.

One of the things we're proud of in this model is that it's really testable—that is to say, it could be wrong. A lot of scientific models are put out in a way that they suggest well, maybe there might be an earthquake in such and such a place. And that's very hard to argue with. But our model is pretty detailed.

And by continually improving the model, the researchers hope to provide useful information about earthquake risk—for the rest of the 30-year test period and beyond.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Earthquakes cost lives and millions of dollars in property damage. In areas prone to quakes, government officials would love to have reliable information on when and where they're likely to occur. Although these disastrous events are notoriously hard to predict, it doesn't mean that scientists aren't trying.

Dave Jackson, a geophysicist at UCLA, is leading a group of researchers in the development of a master model for predicting earthquake activity. By compiling information on the fault lines, geology, and past earthquake activity for Southern California, they have created a set of predictions for earthquakes in the region over a thirty-year period. These predictions have already been used for practical purposes, such as determining building codes and insurance rates. The model will be refined over time to incorporate data on actual earthquake activity for the thirty-year period. The hope is that this constant tweaking will result in a highly accurate model.

This Science Update is a good introduction to the study of earthquakes, as well as an exploration of the uses of models (in this case, Jackson created a conceptual model, combined with many computer models) to understand natural phenomena. The process of choosing a useful model is one which demonstrates how intuition and creativity come into play in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the master model?
  2. What are the practical applications for Jackson's model?
  3. What does Jackson consider the strength of the model?
  4. What does this Science Update show you about the process of creating models? What are the benefits of using a model to learn about natural phenomena? What are the limitations?
  5. Why is the master model changing continuously? Do you think it will ever be perfected? Why or why not?
  6. What other earth processes might be modeled? For what purpose?

For Educators

You can visit the Restless Planet: Earthquakes, which is part of the Savage Earth series on PBS Online. This series presents textual information about earthquakes, enhanced by excellent animations of how earthquakes happen. The section on Quake Prediction is particularly pertinent for this Science Update.

Go to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program site for an extensive look at earthquakes and earthquake prediction. Features include: real-time maps of recent earthquake activity, real-time seismograms, regional earthquake activity reports, and information on recent significant earthquakes. The site also offers general quake information, including geological and historical information, as well as current research.

Read Still Waiting for the Big One on the Mississippi from National Geographic for a look at life in New Madrid, Missouri, where a great earthquake was predicted a number of years ago. The earthquake failed to materialize, leaving citizens to live with the threat of a natural disaster that could occur at any moment. This story is just one of several featured in the Eye in the Sky series, which looks at the role of satellite imagery in predicting natural disasters.

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