Thursday, 25 August 2016

On earthquake prediction, we’re asking the wrong question!

The recent devastating earthquake in Central Italy. The terrible scenes from Ecuador earlier this year. Nepal last year. And all throughout history.  When earthquakes strike, buildings collapse, and tragically people die, lose their homes, jobs, livelihoods. Their streets will never be the same again.

Inevitably, after larger and newsworthy earthquakes, articles fly around asking, ‘Can we predict earthquakes?’. The most recent I have seen is from which ‘…answers your biggest questions about earthquakes’. The top three are:

1. Can scientists predict earthquakes?
2. But still, given all those computer models and such, why can’t they predict?
3. Are you sure scientists can’t predict earthquakes?

Clearly, questions on earthquake prediction is on our minds...

Furthermore, below is a plot of popularity of google searches for the term ‘predict earthquake’. I’ve highlighted major earthquakes with fatalities immediately prior the major peaks that may have triggered people to google these search terms.

There are obviously other major earthquake where there aren’t peaks in searches, but from this diagram it seems to suggest that peaks in searches do follow deadly earthquakes.

Interestingly, the first peak follows the first major earthquake sequence in Italy following the L’Aquila 2009 event and its surrounding controversial prediction stories. This may be why there was such a large peak in searches. 

Additionally, popular articles following an earthquake may drive these searches significantly – such as the aforementioned from

Now I understand why this question is important. If we knew when earthquakes were going to happen, we can get out of buildings and avoid injury and fatalities. We might lose our houses, schools, offices, but we escape with our lives and health. But I think there is a much more important line of questioning that is needed:

1. If we could predict earthquakes, what would we do?
2. If we had two months notice of an upcoming earthquake, what would we do?
3. If we had 2, 5, 10, 50 years notice, what would we do?

In the short term, I think we may prepare emergency plans, make arrangements in case our house collapsed, buy insurance if available, etc.

In the longer term, we might assess the vulnerability of buildings, reinforce those that are less safe, make sure that new buildings are built well, etc.

Now, if you live in an area where earthquakes have happened in the past, it is pretty likely that they will happen again. So actually you have your longer term warning. You have your ‘prediction’!

So, let’s get started on preparing properly. Let’s start sorting out our buildings, our construction practices, our emergency plans. Let’s reduce the risk to inevitable future earthquakes, and the devastation and suffering that they bring.

Let’s start answering the right questions!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great blog!!

    I also have a blog, and I'm trying to get visit from every country. I would really like to get a visit from Monserrat.

    If you can, please come back and visit mine:

    Pablo from Argentina