When will the ‘Big One’ hit? UT prof trying to help forecast earthquakes

Weather & Traffic In-Depth

AUSTIN (KXAN) – More than 1,300 people are dead and thousands more are injured after a powerful earthquake struck Haiti over the weekend. The 7.2-magnitude quake destroyed dozens of buildings and will likely take years to recover from.

Earthquakes are one of the most destructive natural disasters on earth, according to Professor Thorsten Becker with the University of Texas’s Jackson School of Geology, but unlike hurricanes and floods, we don’t really know when the next one will be.

“We don’t really know if that is because earthquakes are inherently unpredictable,” Becker said, “if we had better physical models, maybe we get closer to making a statement as to their predictability.”

Could we anticipate the next big earthquake?

Becker is working with a team of scientists from around the world to answer this question.

“What we’re trying to do is use both the improved state of data collection and the improvement in computational technology,” Becker said.

The five-year project, paid for by the National Science Foundation, will develop computer models that will work much like the models used in weather forecasting. “We have a lot of data. Now let’s get serious and build models that can represent that wealth of data that we already have,” Becker said.

How do weather forecast models work?

Since the team is working to build models similar to ones used for weather, it is helpful to know how those work. Here are the basics: meteorologists have equipment collecting weather data all around the world. From satellites to weather balloons, these devices collect temperature, precipitation, wind speeds, etc. They then feed this information back into supercomputers that then do some crazy math and can make the best guess as to what the weather will be.

It’s important to avoid the word prediction. Meteorologists aren’t able to say this will happen, but they can say that a weather event is likely to happen based on current conditions. Becker’s earthquake forecast will likely do something similar.

Gathering data and testing the earthquake forecast

To be able to build their models and test them, Becker’s team will be gathering data from three earthquake hotspots: the U.S. pacific northwest, New Zealand and Japan. They’ll use data collected from seismometers and underwater sensors, and then test their models in these areas so they can learn what data is and isn’t important for the earthquake forecast. But, it may not be that simple.

“For weather forecasting, we know the physics and we know that if we measure temperature and precipitation better, on finer and finer scales, then our prediction will improve. For earthquakes, we don’t know that,” Becker said.

Another major issue the team is facing is that the movement they’re trying to understand takes place over millions of years. Plate tectonics, the movement of the plates that make up the Earth’s crust, occurs over the history of the planet. Earthquakes are caused by plates touching and scraping against each other. The three zones the team is looking at are all subduction zones, places where one plate is moving under another.

Basically, there’s just so much data available and scientists aren’t even sure what matters and what doesn’t, or even if an earthquake forecast is possible.

“We need to put things together at least once to know what is important and what’s not important,” Becker said. “Perhaps once we do that, we’ll know whether we’ll be able to forecast the next big one.”

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