The Fault in the Facts: Can scientists predict earthquakes?

Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 4:18 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska is hit with many earthquakes a day, whether they are felt or not. Alaskans have no warning when a big shake is coming, but in this installment of The Fault in the Facts, a seismologist answers the question, “Can scientists predict earthquakes?”

Natalia Ruppert is a senior seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center. She says it’s a complicated question with a complicated answer.

She said that different people define earthquake prediction in different ways.

“Right now, scientists cannot predict exactly location, time and magnitude of an earthquake,” Ruppert said. “However, do we really want to know magnitude, location and timing of an earthquake?”

Ruppert explained that information may not be what scientists are after. She said a magnitude eight earthquake that is 1,000 miles away may not be as significant as a magnitude five that’s right underneath someone.

She said scientists have been working for many years to understand and predict the strength of the ground motion that can impact certain areas at a certain time.

“This is similar to weather forecasts,” Ruppert said.

“We are trying to say that in this region, there is a certain probability within a certain time period of a certain strength of ground shaking,” Ruppert said.

Ruppert said scientists need to understand the history of earthquakes in a certain region to get closer to predicting quakes.

Geologists have been working to map all the active faults in the Earth’s crust, Ruppert said. This data can tell scientists where the potential for earthquakes can come from.

She said it’s also important to know when and where major earthquakes were in the past.

“If we know that this region was affected by a major earthquake 500 years ago, and then 1,000 years ago, and then 2,000 years ago, we can forecast that most likely that the same region will experience [a] similar earthquake 500 years from now,” Ruppert said.

Exact earthquake prediction may be possible in the future, Ruppert said, but the physics is very complicated.

Currently, some places of the United States West Coast have an alert system called ShakeAlert which is the closest thing there is to prediction.

It’s only a few years old, and it warns people as soon as an earthquake is detected.

California Scientist Robert de Groot, who has a hand in the system, took a trip to Alaska to work with children enrolled in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. He compared ShakeAlert to lightning and thunder.

“If you’ve ever experienced a lightning storm, you see the lightning, you know something is going on, and you’re preparing for the thunder,” de Groot said. “That’s really what ShakeAlert is, is detecting that earthquake as soon as it reaches the surface.”

ShakeAlert sends a notification to people’s phones to let them know there’s a quake. Depending on where someone is relative to the epicenter, it could give them a moment to act.

De Groot said ShakeAlert detects an earthquake as soon as it reaches the surface, and then the information can be used to help keep people safe.

When a quake is detected, the system automatically sends information to other agencies.

“They take that information and use that to slow down the trains, to get the alerts out to cell phones, to open the firehouse door, to turn off the valves,” de Groot said.

It isn’t a form of earthquake prediction, but instead an early warning.

“There’s no prediction involved,” de Groot said. “It’s just super-fast technology that’s able to pick up that information really quickly, identify what it is, make sure that it really is what it is, and then get the information out as quickly as possible.”

ShakeAlert is operational in California, Oregon, and Washington, but not yet in Alaska.

“It’s important to have the system in Alaska, just like it is in the other parts of the world, is that there’s this opportunity, we now have the ability to detect earthquakes very quickly, and to move that information along so that we can keep people safe,” de Groot said.

There’s no timeline for when or if it could come to Alaska, but scientists are taking the first step to see if the system would be feasible here.

“ShakeAlert is not the only solution,” de Groot said. “If earthquake early warning comes to Alaska, it’s just going to be one of the additional tools that people already have. They feel shaking, they should know to drop, cover, and hold on. People should have their emergency supplies.”

He said ShakeAlert is just another piece of the larger puzzle of keeping people safe and protecting them after a quake happens. The effort to get ShakeAlert in Alaska is in the initial stages of feasibility studies.

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