Tuesday, January 22

Quakes unpredictable but death tolls preventable, UCLA professors say


On Sep. 28, Patrick Charles, a 65-year-old geologist and former professor at the Geological Institute of Havana, warned of an earthquake in Haiti.

Charles stated in an article in Haiti’s Le Matin newspaper that conditions were suitable for major seismic activity in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

But some UCLA professors remain skeptical of earthquake prediction.

“After almost every major earthquake, you have a story like (Patrick Charles),” said Jonathan Stewart, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Stewart said the left-lateral strike-slip quake was the result of stress release after continuous shifting of the North American plate in the north and the Caribbean plate in the south.

According to Vladimir Keilis-Borok, professor in residence of earth and space sciences, scientists take advantage of the fact that all strong earthquakes follow the same underlying process ““ tectonic development of the Earth or a shifting of plates.

Keilis-Borok said earthquake prediction is based on premonitory behavior patterns in a specific location that occurs more often as an earthquake approaches.

“These patterns might be either perpetrators, contributing to preparation of a strong earthquake, or witnesses (that) merely (signal) that such earthquake is ripening,” Keilis-Borok said.

Keilis-Borok added that this approach combines mathematical modeling and data analysis by using pattern recognition of rare events.

Yet Stewart said he does not believe in exact earthquake prediction.

“It would be like trying to predict whether your football team is going to win based on whether the buses are arriving on time,” he said jokingly.

Keilis-Borok also acknowledged the limitations of earthquake prediction.

“Our alarms cover time intervals of years or months, and territories from hundred to thousands kilometers in diameter,” he said.

Stewart said by knowing the slip rate and where the previous earthquake occurred, scientists can predict that the probability of an earthquake is very high over the next few decades, if a fault is overdue.

Scott Brandenberg, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, commented on the practicality of earthquake prediction.

“It’s much less useful because you can’t evacuate a city based on that kind of poor prediction,” Brandenberg said.

Instead of predicting the exact occurrence of an earthquake, Brandenberg endorsed preparation and suggested the construction of an early warning system that could stop trains in a quake. He said Japan has successfully implemented such a system that can stop the high-speed rail when the equipment senses an earthquake.

Stewart proposed a long-term solution.

“They need to adopt building practices … and spend just a little bit more that will keep the building from falling down and killing people,” he said.

He said in most cases, people do not have the political will to rebuild correctly, since the public often forgets about the possibility of earthquakes.

“Nobody should die, and that’s a big step forward,” he said.

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