Calif quake project aimed to ID future hotspots

Sep 26, 2011 By ALICIA CHANG , AP Science Writer

In the ongoing quest to better anticipate future earthquakes, scientists embarked on an ambitious experiment: Identify the likeliest places where magnitude-4.9 quakes or stronger would occur in seismically active California over a five-year period.

Half a dozen teams decided to give it a shot. They developed sophisticated computer models, submitted their best guesses and waited. As part of the ground rules, they could not change their forecasts, which were checked against actual quakes that hit during the study period.

The goal was to see whether there was a reliable way to flag a seismic hotspot before the ground shakes.

The exercise, which began in 2006 and wrapped up last December, was not aimed at predicting quakes, which remains elusive. Instead, researchers were asked to pinpoint regions where quakes were more likely to occur based on past seismic history, activity on or other factors. The state was divided into 7,700 sections and teams had to give probabilities of quakes of varying magnitudes occurring in each one.

During the test period, 31 quakes larger than magnitude-4.9 rattled the state, including the greater Los Angeles region, San Francisco Bay area and off the Northern California coast. The largest was the 2010 Easter earthquake centered in Baja California that produced sizable aftershocks along the U.S.-Mexico border.

So how did scientists do?

"No single model takes home all the gold," said seismologist John Vidale of the University of Washington who was not part of any team.

U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Sue Hough agreed. The experiment shows just "how difficult it is to even evaluate rigorously the success of prediction methods," she said.

By one measure, three groups that took into account all past quakes regardless if they were big or small fared better than the rest. One of them analyzed the performance and published results online Monday in the .

Some scientists questioned whether a team that has a stake in the game should be a referee. One of the study's leaders, Donald Turcotte of the University of California, Davis, said it is unavoidable given the tight-knit earthquake science community.

"It is impossible to find people with expertise who are not participants in the experiment," he said.

Jeremy Zechar of the University of Southern California, who is heading his own review, takes issue with the yardstick used by Turcotte's team to gauge success. It was developed halfway into the experiment and was not part of the original criteria agreed to by the participants.

David Jackson of the University of California, Los Angeles, likened the experiment to kiddie soccer.

There are "no official winners or losers, but plenty of scorekeeping from the sidelines" to learn the strengths and weaknesses of various theories, Jackson said.

While scientists cannot say with certainty exactly when and where the next quake will strike, they have an idea of how quakes behave. For example, a big quake will produce smaller aftershocks in the same area. There's still a lot that's unknown such as whether quakes too small to be felt play a role in increasing the chances of a bigger quake.

Geophysicist John Ebel of Boston College was not surprised that his work ranked low in the study because he made simple assumptions.

"There's still a lot we don't understand," Ebel said.

Since the California experiment ended, scientists are applying lessons learned to a similar international effort currently under way.

Explore further: Simple topography of dryland channels presents an interesting paradox

More information: http://www.pnas.org

2 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

East vs. West quakes: Way different creatures

Aug 24, 2011

(AP) -- The East Coast doesn't get earthquakes often but when they do strike, there's a whole lot more shaking going on. The ground in the East is older, colder and more intact than the West Coast or the ...

Earthquake Forecast Program Has Amazing Success Rate

Oct 05, 2004

A NASA-funded earthquake forecast program has an amazing track record. Published in 2002, the Rundle-Tiampo Forecast has accurately forecast the locations of 15 of California's 16 largest earthquakes this decad ...

Recommended for you

NASA image: Fires in the southern United States

3 hours ago

In this image taken by the Aqua satellite of the southern United States actively burning areas as detected by MODIS's thermal bands are outlined in red. Each red hot spot is an area where the thermal detectors ...

Software models ocean currents for oil and gas search

4 hours ago

A study involving the use of streamline visualisation has found the technology can help guide electromagnetic transmitter and receiver placements, thereby aiding the search for oil and gas on the seafloor.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

omatumr
1 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2011
There's still a lot we don't understand"


Thanks for your honesty!

Consider the demise of world leaders, well-paid scientific advisors and their followers after forty years (1971-2001) of selecting the output from computer models that best suited their own selfish ends, and are now . . .

Trapped -- like rats on a sinking ship -- with obviously false claims of human control over Earth's climate!

Who is to blame?

a.) Not the world leaders, who paid handsomely for misinformation.

b.) Not followers who acted as bright as Presidents of NAS and RS, but

c.) Presidents of NAS and RS who encouraged government scientists to select the computer output that most pleased the politicians and ignored, hid, or manipulated experimental observations [1] that falsified their story.

1. http://dl.dropbox...reer.pdf

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel

Lao Tzu: "To know that you do not know is best,
To pretend to know what you do not know is a disease."