Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction


An earthquake can strike without warning and wreak horrific destruction and death, whether it's the cataclysmic 2008 Sichuan quake in China that killed tens of thousands or a future great earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in California, which scientists know is inevitable. Yet despite rapid advances in earthquake science, seismologists still can't predict when the Big One will hit. Predicting the Unpredictable is the first book to explain why, exploring the fact and fiction behind the science--and pseudoscience--of earthquake prediction.

Susan Hough traces the continuing quest by seismologists to forecast the time, location, and magnitude of future quakes--a quest fraught with controversies, spectacular failures, and occasional apparent successes. She brings readers into the laboratory and out into the field with the pioneers who have sought to develop reliable methods based on observable phenomena such as small earthquake patterns and electromagnetic signals. Hough describes attempts that have raised hopes only to collapse under scrutiny, as well as approaches that seem to hold future promise. She recounts stories of strange occurrences preceding massive quakes, such as changes in well water levels and mysterious ground fogs. She also ventures to the fringes of pseudoscience to consider ideas outside the scientific mainstream, from the enduring belief that animals can sense impending earthquakes to amateur YouTube videos purporting to show earthquake lights prior to large quakes.

This book is an entertaining and accessible foray into the world of earthquake prediction, one that illuminates the unique challenges of predicting the unpredictable.


What is most tragic is that the collective genius
of all of these experts, combined with the sensors and
satellite observations and seismographic data and all the
other tools of science and technology, could not send the
important message at the key moment: Run.
Run for your lives.

—JOEL ACHENBACH, Washington Post, January 30, 2005

At the beginning of 2005, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Bob Dollar was keeping a routine eye on data from the local Global Positioning System (GPS) network in southern California, and something caught his eye. A small army of GPS instruments throughout California tracks the motion of the earth's tectonic plates; the movement of the North American Plate south relative to the Pacific Plate as well as more complicated, smaller-scale shifts. Plates move about as fast as fingernails grow; like fingernails, the movement is not only slow but also steady (fig. 1.1). But it seemed to Dollar that a group of stations out in the Mojave Desert and some in the San Gabriel Valley northeast of central Los Angeles had started to take a bit of a detour from their usual, steady trajectories.

When one uses GPS data to determine precise locations the results always reveal some flutter, the consequence of measurement imprecision or data processing complications. Knowing this, Dollar did not jump out of his chair. But, interest peaked, he continued to keep his eye on the results, waiting for the apparent detours to prove to be part of the usual noise.

They didn't. After a couple of months of watching and waiting, the . . .

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