An earthquake, like lightning, strikes unpredictably. Earth's tectonic plates, however, hide subtle warnings that a major fault could soon rupture. Like predicting a thunderstorm, knowing how to read these signs could help communities protect local lives, infrastructure and economies.
For decades, scientists have struggled to provide reliable predictions for major earthquake hotspots, but now an international team of scientists led by the University of Texas at Austin has embarked on a new initiative to make that happen.
“We are trying to get the system to predict every earthquake through physics,” says the project leader Thorsten Becker, a professor at UT's Jackson School of Geosciences.
Five years to predict an earthquake?
The five-year project, funded by National Science Foundation (NSF), will develop new IT tools, software and teaching materials focused on forecasting modeling. The team will also train students, hold seminars and recruit new computational geoscientists by tapping into neglected talent pools and reaching underserved communities.
The ultimate goal? The development of computer models capable of predicting the probabilities of an earthquake and its likely impact. Something similar to what is used to predict the weather, but on longer time scales.
Becker doesn't expect to see "weather forecasts" of an earthquake within five years, no. Nothing already so widespread and developed in such a short time. But he believes the idea is now technically possible. There is still a lot to understand about the physics that governs an earthquake, this is the key ingredient in a forecasting process.
Tests to fine-tune the IT model
UT scientists will collaborate with researchers from national universities and laboratories working on three of the world's earthquake hotspots: Northwest Pacific, New Zealand and Japan. The sites selected are all subduction zones, places where tectonic plates meet. The differences between them will allow researchers to test their models and figure out what conditions to look for to decide if an earthquake is likely.
Subduction zones are important because they are the sites of the most powerful earthquakes in the world and can trigger dangerous tsunamis, such as the one following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that killed nearly 250.000 people in 14 countries.
Challenges to be overcome
It is not easy to monitor all the “hot” areas that can lead to the effective forecast of an earthquake. They are often located on the high seas, and are subjected to deep geological forces that take hundreds to millions of years to develop, on scales from fractions of a centimeter to thousands of miles. That's why earthquake scientists turn to computers to simulate faults and their tectonic settings. The new project will aim to fill the current gaps and make simulations much, much, much more reliable.
“It's kind of like calculating the probability of a pandemic,” he says Laura Wallace, a researcher at the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics. "You can't know when and where the next earthquake will happen, but you can look at the factors that make it more likely and predict how it might play out."