Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

NASA-funded study scores high in assessing California quakes

If we could predict earthquakes, what a California world it would be. Lives would be saved. Buildings would be secured. Every time a truck rumbles past out windows, we wouldn’t have to dive for the desk. As yet, the technology does not exist to precisely predict every earth shaker to rumble across the Southland. But NASA recently announced that we’re moving closer to this day.

A new NASA-backed study from the University of California, Davis, shows that the best forecasts are now about 10 times more accurate than a random prediction. In 2005, the Southern California Earthquake Center launched a competition for forecasters to predict earthquakes. The recent Davis study, who also submitted a forecast, looked at seven entries in the competition.

As UC Davis reports, “Teams were invited to forecast the probability of an earthquake of magnitude 4.95 or greater, from Jan. 1, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2010, in almost 8,000 grid squares covering California and bordering areas.” The Davis study found that the best forecasts were much more accurate than previous random estimations. The study will be used to help researchers streamline quake forecasts and assessment tools.

Meanwhile, more private companies are developing alternative ways to predict earthquakes. Tom Bleier is CEO and Chief Technology Officer at QuakeFinder, a research company dedicated to earthquake prediction. As Bleier shares, “Earthquake forecasting has had a spotty past, and currently, most seismologists work with 30-50 year time windows in terms of forecasting large earthquakes based on seismic records and paleoseismic studies.” His hopes are that Californians may soon be able to prepare for earthquakes as others prepare for hurricanes.

Along with his co-engineers, Bleier has deployed a network of 70 ultra-low frequency magnetometer instruments along the major faults in California. This has enabled these engineers to observe a pattern of magnetic pulses, air conductivity changes and infra red night time patterns in the two weeks prior to earthquakes. While some experts call his findings inconclusive, Bleier remains vigilant to keep California’s Office of Emergency Services attuned to his research. 

Image: A “seismic hotspot” map produced using the NASA-funded UC-Davis-led forecast method. Courtesy of NASA