By Richard Lovett
for National Geographic News
Published January 4, 2013
Could magnetic waves be the trustworthy tool that saves lives?
Gabriel Zegarra observes the aftermath of a magnitude 8 earthquake that hit the town of Pisco, Peru on August 16, 2007. Photograph by Dado Galdieri, AP
Twenty-three hundred years ago, hordes of mice, snakes, and insects fled the Greek city of Helike on the Gulf of Corinth (map). “After these creatures departed, an earthquake occurred in the night,” wrote the ancient Roman writer Claudius Aelianus. “The city subsided; an immense wave flooded and Helike disappeared.”
Since then, generations of scientists and folklorists have used a dizzying array of methods to attempt to predict earthquakes. Animal behavior, changes in the weather, and seismograms have all fallen short. (Watch: home video footage and the science of earthquakes.)
The dream is to be able to forecast earthquakes like we now predict the weather. Even a few minutes’ warning would be enough for people to move away from walls or ceilings that might collapse or for nuclear plants and other critical facilities to be shut down safely in advance of the temblor. And if accurate predictions could be made a few days in advance, any necessary evacuations could be planned, much as is done today for hurricanes.
Scientists first turned to seismology as a predictive tool, hoping to find patterns of foreshocks that might indicate that a fault is about to slip. But nobody has been able to reliably distinguish between the waves of energy that herald a great earthquake and harmless rumblings.
Seismologists just can’t give a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether we’re about to have a large earthquake, said Thomas Jordan, director of the University of Southern California’s Southern California Earthquake Center at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco in December.