Earthquake Prediction Today
After the setbacks of the 1990s, the field of earthquake prediction seemed to go fallow for a while. But today groups in the USA, Russia, Japan and elsewhere are laying new groundwork for predictions.
First we should be clear about a few terms. A prediction is a statement specifying the time, location and magnitude of an earthquake. The consensus of the 1990s ruled out this kind of true prediction as a fruitful subject of research. Today, anyone doing this is not taken seriously, and you can assume that outfits like Geoforecaster or Syzygy.com are about as reliable as astrology.
Before weather predictions became widely accepted, we had to spend decades learning about climatology, fluid dynamics and the physical laws that govern the ocean and the atmosphere at all scales. We also had to collect immense amounts of historical data and set up satellites to monitor the ocean-atmosphere system. If earthquake predictions are to become as effective as weather predictions are today, we must take seismology to a comparable level. Today's research is aimed at that more fundamental goal, and the nearest that scientists will come to issuing predictions is making long-term and medium-term forecasts on a strictly experimental basis.
Ross Stein of the U.S. Geological Survey champions a promising line of research based on stress triggering that may show where, if not just when, the next earthquake may occur. This kind of knowledge could become useful for long-term preparation, as in Japan's Tokai project.
Other theorists are exploring advanced statistical analyses and subtle patterns of seismic activity that are reminiscent of the behavior of stressed beams. Some formulas appear to have some traction at a very weak level. The Regional Earthquake Likelihood Models (RELM) group organized a contest of earthquake models whose forecasts were published in 2007. It will take many more baby steps like these to gain any ground. But because even the vaguest, most academic forecasts can make people overreact, most researchers don't share them on the Web. Also, history has not been kind to scientists who tried predictions, and science itself has suffered damage. For now, the Web remains the playground of untrustworthy operators.
PS: Even if we could issue earthquake predictions, Stathis Stiros asked the RAS-JAG meeting, should we? In his presentation he argued that earthquakes claim so few lives in Greece these days, it would be cheaper to fix the few unsafe buildings that kill people and avoid the costs of panic, unnecessary shutdowns, and false alarms. Just upgrading the five worst street intersections in Athens would save as many lives as are lost in all of Greece due to earthquakes, he said.