The Loh Down On Science

Powdered Earthquakes

Can earthquakes be prevented with … refined flour?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying, don’t be silly! But it might help predict them.

Meet Troy Shinbrot, from Rutgers University. He wondered how powders responded to physical instability. Why? Because everything from mountainsides to masonry is made of zillions of tiny grains.

So he packed mounds of flour in special transparent trays fitted with probes, then moved them to simulate geologic activity. You might say he made pan-quakes!

The results? Earth-shattering. Tiny cracks below the surface turned into large ones. If these grew and broke the surface? Landslides and cave-ins.

But here’s the weird part. He recorded bursts of electrical activity up to four seconds before cracks formed. What caused these signals is unknown, but it happened every time.

The implications? Let’s rewind: Catastrophe. Big crack. Small cracks. Lots of electrical signals. Read the signals, predict impending doom! So whether a cliff or a concrete bridge--if you see a spike in snap and crackle? It’s probably ready to pop.

As for using flour to bake a cake that doesn't fall--that I myself am continuing to work on.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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