CAN AN EARTHQUAKE BE PREDICTED?
“Earthquake prediction, though challenging, is not impossible, at least for some earthquakes” — American Geological Institute (AGI)
WHAT IS A VALID PREDICTION FOR AN EARTHQUAKE?
According to Wikipedia, a meaningful earthquake prediction must have all the following elements: Specific area; Specific magnitude or magnitude range; Specific time window; Estimate of probability compared to random chance; A physical basis.
THE PREFECT PREDICTION
China successfully predicted the magnitude 7.3 Haicheng Earthquake in 1975. It is the first successful prediction of the earthquake in human history.
This prediction is not just an isolated instance.
MORE SUCCESS STORIES
Chen Jianming, the head of the State Seismological Bureau (SSB) of China, said in an interview by CCTV “I believe earthquakes can be predicted — practice is the sole criterion for testing truth. Haicheng Earthquake mentioned just now is a good example. We also have more than twenty effective predictions and forecasts over the past thirty years.”
Another well known example is the remarkable story of Qinglong County in 1976 Tangshan Earthquake. Taking great political risks, the county officials implemented comprehensive measures to prepare for the quake and only a single person died of heart attack in the deadly earthquake. Ran Guangqi, the party secretary and the administrator of the Qinglong county, responded to the doubters of Qinglong miracle by saying “Some say that the Qinglong case is like ‘a blind cat bumped into a dead mouse’, but I say those people have scales on their eyes and they know it.”
(As one of the readers note, it is hard to find information online about the details of the UN giving a medal to Ran Guangqi. If you have more information regarding the validity of the story, please leave a comment below)
Ran Guangqi, the head of Qinglong Country was awarded a medal by the U.N.for his courage to act and care for his people. He says
“Chairman Mao’s words emboldened me — a communist is fearless of the five things: being beheaded, imprisoned, and divorced…” said he, on his courageous decision to mobilize the people to prepare for the incoming earthquake
BUT EVEN JAPAN AND U.S. CANNOT PREDICT EARTHQUAKES
Well. China invented the first seismograph about 1800 years ago, at least a thousand years earlier than the appearance of similar devices in other places. China was the leading country in earthquake predictions thirty years ago.
THEN HOW TO PREDICT QUAKES?
I am no seismologist, and can only tell you what I read from the Internet.
First of all, there should be numerous precursors before a major temblor. This includes strange animal behavior, the abnormal changes in the temperature, clarity and level of ground water, earthquake clouds, Day-glo colors in the sky. The list goes on.
Secondly, quake scientists have instruments that can measure the changes in geomagnetism, geoelectricity, crustal pressure. Abnormal readings in meteorological and astronomical stations are also valuable to predict quakes.
Di Qingguo’s theory on the correlation between droughts and earthquakes caught my attention. He postulates “One to three years before the strike of magnitude 6 or above earthquakes, the epicenter will suffer from droughts. The area of the drought is proportional to the magnitude of the earthquake. If the quake occurs in the third year after the drought, the magnitude will increase by 0.5 in comparison to the scale of the first year.”
His theory sounds very insightful if one correlates it to the severe drought that plagued Sichuan in 2007. The rise of ground temperature also occurred in 1973 Haicheng Earthquake “A part of the ice in a shade of a frozen reservoir melted during a very cold winter, and many snakes suicided on the frozen ground.” Di Qingguo’s studies are also used for the short-term prediction of quakes.
Thirdly, the population at large should be educated and informed about the earthquakes and its precursory phenomena. They should be encouraged to report the possible signs promptly once they notice something unusual. The lay watch stations set up by volunteers in Qinglong County greatly contributed to the success story of Qinglong county.
WHY ARE SOME PEOPLE HESITANT OR RELUCTANT TO ISSUE QUAKE PREDICTIONS?
No one can guarantee their predictions of earthquakes are accurate, and the consequences of a false alarm can be very severe. Despite all of the repercussions of an inaccurate prediction, it is a matter of responsibility and conscience down to the core.
Nobody explains this more amply than Ran Guangqi, the head of Qinglong County. When asked if he was under pressure to issue an earthquake alert, he replied:
I couldn’t sleep for several days, and I was greatly troubled. The warning has been issued and the most of 470,000 people of the county moved outdoor. The loudspeakers kept broadcasting the imminent quake. To tell you the truth, I have a family and a career. I could lose my position as a county leader if I alerted people; on the other hand, the lives of 470,000 people were at risk if I didn’t. The choice agonized me … But what if the quake does strike? I would be ashamed of myself for letting my people down, and have a guilty conscience in my entire life — even tough I may not admit it. I really like the two lines in a poem by Lin Zexu: “When the nation is in a crisis of life and death, how can I evade my duty due to personal gains and losses?”
Shall the public be informed about a possible strike?
It is impossible to predict earthquakes with %100 accuracy, and a false alarm can cause panic and disturbance in the public. so is it better to hide the information and let them die?
Informing the public about a possible disaster does not necessarily cause panic and disturbance in the public. Experts in public administration and disaster management should be consulted as to how to inform the public of the truth and avoid the possible panic. In fact, concealment of information from the public is more like to cause panic and the spawn rampant rumors.
Everybody knows he or she will die one day. Does it mean we all panic once we learn about our mortality?
The recent example during the outbreak of SARS in China 2003 better explains the importance of informing the public. China suffered heavy losses of life in the endemic, partly because the information of the disease was not released to the public promptly, and on some occasions, deliberately hidden from the public. At the beginning, the population had little knowledge about the virus and it spread quickly among the unprotected and unprepared people at large. The hard lesson was learned, and laws were later passed to ensure the immediate reporting and announcing on the occurrence of contagious diseases.
Seismologists should inform the public about the probability of an incoming earthquake, and necessary precautions and measures should be taken to minimize the damage.
The worst-case scenario is the prediction proved to be inaccurate and the normal social and economic lives were affected. However, no loss is comparable to the nightmare when an earthquake struck an unprepared population.
WHY THE EARTHQUAKE PREDICTION IS IMPORTANT IN CHINA
For the obvious reason that China is the most populous country in the world.