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Predicting earthquakes: Are we close?

July 9, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Scientists have found a change in the speed of seismic waves just before small earthquakes. They say they hope it may be a way to detect a tremor before it strikes.The ability to predict earthquakes is limited; however, scientists from Rice University and the Carnegie Institution detected small changes deep in the Earth's crust hours before two small earthquakes occurred along the San Andreas Fault.

Fenglin Niu is a seismologist at Rice University. His team dropped instruments deep into a well drilled several years ago near Parkfield, on the San Andreas Fault. The team's seismic stress meter detected changes in the rocks 10 hours before a Magnitude-3.0 earthquake shook the area three years ago. If the phenomenon can be confirmed, the scientists hope it may lead to a system to predict earthquakes, similar to the quake that recently devastated China.

"A lot of children [were] killed in school during class. So, even with a few seconds, at least we can relocate the people in a safe place, which actually can save a lot of lives," said Rice University Seismologist Fenglin Niu.

Niu said the findings are only preliminary, but if further tests confirm the signals are pervasive, it could form the basis for an earthquake early-warning system.

Other scientists are very skeptical.

"If they could predict every Magnitude-3 earthquake, that's fine. But, who cares? I mean, 3's don't count. People want to know, 'Can you tell me which 3's, that you can predict within hours, will be a 6 or a 7?'" said Tom Heaton, professor of engineering seismology at the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Tom Heaton is a geophysicist and civil engineering professor at Caltech. According to Dr. Heaton, the only current way to predict a quake is through the earliest "P-waves" sent out ahead of the quake itself. Those waves arrive seconds before the tremors begin. Dr. Heaton and others have worked for decades looking for a better warning sign; however, the Holy Grail remains out of reach.

 

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