Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Earthquake Prediction Possible In Ten Years Says Pres. Kalam

The Hindu reports that Ex President of India A. P. J. Abdul Kalam ( file photo) has announced while talking to a group of students in Trichur South India that scientists will be able to predict earthquakes accurately in about 10 years. 

What does accurate prediction mean? Scientists can already say that an earthquake is likely to occur along a fault in the next 50-100 years. That reflects the limit of the state of knowledge about how stresses build up along faults in various tectonic provinces of the world.  However that is not what the public wants to hear. The expectation is that scientists should be able to tell them that an earthquake is imminent at a particular location in the next few days.  These expectations recently played themselves to an ugly end. Six seismologists and an official of Italy's civil protection agency are being prosecuted for manslaughter on the charge that they failed to give a short term warning of the earthquake that struck the town of LÁquila in April 2009.

The response in Italy reflects a misunderstanding of the state of  our knowledge on earthquakes and a  more general impatience with science. It is a wholly mistaken expectation. It is true that scientists are working towards understanding the causes of earthquakes and they are beginning to monitor individual faults with instruments at a few selected locations. But we just don't have enough data that will help us come to a specific understanding of the causal chain of events that leads to rock failure and crustal blocks eventually slipping past each other.  I have not heard from any geologist or seismologist working in this field that accurate short term predictions will be likely in ten years.

I am not sure if Pres. Kalam has talked to any experts in this field or he is basing his assessment solely on the success rates of predicting other natural phenomenon like cyclones. If that is the case, he is wrong to compare these phenomena. Cyclones and earthquakes are two different beasts. Weather parameters are more easily collected than the measurement of stresses deep inside the earth. We therefore have a good understanding of the physics of the atmosphere and nowadays with satellite monitoring we can image a developing cyclone or hurricane in the remote parts of the ocean and track its path as it makes landfall.

On the other hand we have had little success pinpointing earthquake precursors. Claims of preceding smaller tremors, gaseous emissions, animals running wild, atmospheric pressure changes are presented as reliable indicators from time to time, but a careful analysis shows that there are too many false positives for any of these events to be considered as consistently pointing to an imminent big earthquake.

Pres. Kalam who is also a rocket scientist is a respected public figure in India. His words count and expectations build up around his statements. He could in my opinion make a bigger and more constructive contribution by lobbying and putting pressure on the government to ensure that building safety standards are being adhered to in various earthquakes risk zones and that disaster management plans which the government boasts are all ready are actually being rehearsed and taught in schools. These measures will save more lives than any illusions built around earthquake prediction.

As for the business of accurately predicting the next big one.. the earth's plates grind mysteriously on. It is entirely possible that just like the likelihood of bringing an efficient public transport system to California, earthquake prediction has a great future... and always will.


  1. Strange story. If he's a physicist, then he should know that there are no future guarantees in science. Maybe he wasn't a good rocket scientist, that's why he went into politics.

  2. Really, Is this possible? If it is, it's a boon to mankind.

  3. Malcolm - i think it more accurate to call him a rocket engineer - to be a scientist is ultimately a mindset..

    Saru - that kind of short term prediction is not possible at present.