Why can’t we predict when earthquakes will occur?

Seismologists hope AI could forecast disasters like those that hit Turkey and Syria

The first 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near the Turkish city of Gaziantep at 4.17am, while people were sleeping

Two huge earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria on Monday have raised a simple question: why didn’t anyone know they were coming?

The quakes, with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.7 respectively, are known to have killed at least 16,000 people and demolished more than 6,600 buildings across southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. Many survivors are now homeless and facing sub-zero temperatures.

In the aftermath of the two earthquakes social media “swarmed with bogus claims that the cataclysm was predicted just days ago”, said NPR.

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And while some had said an earthquake might occur, it is merely the usual “scattershot statements and predictions”, Susan Hough, a seismologist at the US Geological Survey, told the US broadcaster. “It’s the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, basically,” she said.

What did the papers say?

Being able to accurately predict where and when an earthquake will occur “has eluded earth scientists for years”, said The Washington Post. This despite the fact that “the stakes couldn’t be higher”.

Over roughly the past two decades, earthquakes have caused nearly 750,000 deaths globally, which accounts for “more half of all deaths related to natural disasters”, according to the World Health Organization.

The causes of earthquakes are well understood. They occur “when massive blocks of the earth’s crust suddenly move past each other,” explained Vox. “As [tectonic] plates move, pressure builds up across their boundaries, while friction holds them in place.”

Scientists “understand these kinds of earthquakes well”, the site said. However, earthquakes can also occur within tectonic plates, as pressure along their edges cause deformations in the middle. These risks are harder to detect and measure.”

Some scientists have begun investigating whether climate change could have any bearing on earthquakes. According to Nasa geophysicist Paul Lundgren, the “main way this could happen is if climate change caused surface water to add to the stress on a fault”, The Jerusalem Post said. This is known as “microseismicity” – tiny earthquakes that humans can’t feel.

The Post also cites how Nasa researcher Donald Argus found that “droughts can alter the size of mountains due to a loss of water”. Such changes could, in theory, “result in a change of stress on faults” and lead to possible earthquakes.

“The key to all of this is ‘in theory,’ though,” the Post said. “Because earthquakes are so unpredictable, it is extremely difficult to say for sure how much of a role climate change could play.”

What next?

Regardless of where they occur, earthquakes are “nearly impossible” to predict, given the “sheer complexity of analysing the entirety of the planet’s crust”, said The Washington Post.

Some hope that new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will help make predictions more accurate, and that smartphones can act as early-warning systems and alert people that they need to move to a place of safety when an earthquake is imminent.

According to Scientific American “advances in technology – including improved machine-learning algorithms and supercomputers as well as the ability to store and work with vastly greater amounts of data” are giving scientists “a new edge” in forecasting earthquakes.

Paul Johnson, a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the publication: “You’re viewed as a nutcase if you say you think you’re going to make progress on predicting earthquakes.” But the latest advances in AI might mean “experts could predict quakes months or even years ahead of time”, Johnson said.

Last year, Science Daily reported on an experiment by Johnson using an AI approach borrowed from natural-language processing, similar to the language translation and autofill functions on a smartphone. It has shown promise in being able to predict “future fault friction” – or earthquakes – in a laboratory setting.

However, Johnson added, “the next challenge is whether we can do this on Earth to predict future fault displacement”.

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