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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

No quake prediction system for NZ

The NZ Herald reported yesterday (here) that a quake prediction system devised in the US won’t be installed in New Zealand. The Herald article leads off:

An earthquake prediction system installed on some of the world's largest fault lines is unproven and won't be rolled out in New Zealand, government scientists say.

US researchers believe they've cracked a way of predicting quakes days before they strike, with the potential to save thousands of lives.

It is hard to know how much credibility to attach to such claims. Are the researchers offering us something as revolutionary as the tsunami warning system was when it was first produced, nothing more than an opportunity to buy into a system less useful than the Ministry of Education’s payroll system, or something as likely as a universal cure for cancer?

The prediction system is called QuakeFinder and the associated web site is here. A quick check of the page dealing with the science behind their system suggests that nothing concrete has been established about what early warning signals the ground might produce when a quake is imminent. On the About page (here) the company makes the following comment regarding the results obtained so far:

To date, retrospective analysis has revealed apparent earthquake signatures for three significant quakes. If these patterns are observed in prospective data analysis, appropriate local authorities will be alerted.

What exactly does that mean, and of what practical use would it be?

Even if quakes could sometimes be predicted, how would we handle the information? How good (precise as to time, place, magnitude, depth, and nature) would the information be? What would be the greatest risk: building collapse, liquefaction, tsunami, panic? Who would get to know first? Who would decide what information would be released, how and when? What would be the best way for the public to respond and where exactly would those at risk go to  be safe?

Would the citizens of Christchurch feel confident about leaving these decisions in the hands of senior management of the Council? If not, then who would be considered suitable? Even if there were a system with merit, there is a lot of work to be done before implementation of even a trial could be considered.

For a more scientific approach to the issues of earthquake forecasting there is a 2011 article on the Science Daily website here, and general information on the QuakeSim website here.

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