Weather reports, but for earthquakes: Why you should pay attention during the next seismic forecast

It’s one of those coping skills that come with living in earthquake country: Putting the risk out of your mind until that moment you feel the shaking.

But this form of denial is being challenged — thanks to social media and a push by some seismic safety experts to spread the word when the risk of an earthquake increases.

Scientists say they cannot predict when earthquakes will strike. But they have long known that 50% of all large quakes are preceded by smaller quakes. Moreover, decades of research shows that small quakes near major faults — such as the San Andreas — can trigger bigger temblors.

So when a swarm of more than 200 small quakes several weeks ago began to hit the Salton Sea area, scientists immediately took notice. Because the quakes — reaching magnitudes as great as 4.3 — occurred so close to the San Andreas, the experts said the chance of a 7.0 or greater quake on the mighty fault increased significantly, from 1 in 6,000 in any given week to as much as 1 in 100 during that particular week.

Until recently, those probabilities got little attention outside the seismic world. But this time, for a variety of reasons, the heightened risk blew up on social media, generating curiosity as well as a good amount of anxiety.

This response pleased many earthquake experts, who have long struggled to get the public to focus more on the risk of a devastating temblor. They hope the Salton Sea swarm is the beginning of a much greater focus on “operational earthquake forecasting,” which involves assessing the changing risks of an earthquake and sharing that information with the public.

“This is, in some sense, a kind of seismic weather reporting,” said Thomas H. Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, who sits on the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council. “I don’t see any reason why that information shouldn’t be made available to the public continuously.”

The idea of earthquake forecasts has been controversial among scientists, with some arguing such pronouncements are nowhere near as certain as weather forecasts. Some remain skeptical about how useful it is to share these quake probabilities with the public. 

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