Earthquakes: Watch the Waves

Predicting quakes is the holy grail of seismic research. No one’s come up with anything reliable yet (earthquake weather? It doesn’t exist.), but there’s been progress…

Researchers cannot say with pinpoint accuracy when and where a quake will occur, but using historical seismic data and what they know about geology, they can pretty accurately forecast the likelihood of a quake occurring within a given period. They also know that a quake begets a certain pattern of aftershocks, which is how the U.S. Geological Survey comes up with its 24-hour forecasts.

Early Warning
Researchers at Caltech and UC Berkeley are working on a system of sensors to pick up shock waves near the origin of a quake and alert outlying areas before the shaking begins. The warning (which could go out to cell phone and other networks) might be only a few seconds, but for massive quakes it could be tens of seconds, allowing rail lines to shut down, pipelines to close off, and elevators to return to the ground floor automatically and open their doors. Japan already has such a system.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has just launched a program known as UAVSAR (don’t ask), in which a pod mounted on the belly of a Gulfstream jet takes images of the state’s seismically active regions. By comparing readouts over time, researchers hope to detect changes in the earth’s crust along fault lines that would improve our understanding of quakes. The ultimate goal? Finding telltale signs that enable prediction. The more tempered aspiration is to be able to better gauge which faults are more at risk of rupturing in the near term. A satellite system that would perform a similar task is set to go up in 2017.