Is It a Good Thing We Can't Predict Earthquakes?

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The seismologist and science writer Susan E. Hough writes at cnn.com:

Pointing to any one corner of the Earth as the location of the next Big One is not a winning game. Take a map of the world's most active plate boundaries and throw a dart; where it lands is as good a guess as any. The only valid reason for imminent concern about any particular area is, oddly enough, right after a big earthquake has struck. Take Japan for example, where the risk from aftershocks is substantial.

Many people reading this might be tempted to feel thankful that they are not living within one of the planet's hot zones. Who in their right mind would live in California, anyway? Well, guess what.

There are places where big quakes are especially unlikely (but not impossible) -- for example, central Canada. But there are other notable places where scientists know that damaging earthquakes are entirely possible.

Southeastern Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; Boston -- these regions have all experienced earthquakes larger than the magnitude-6.1 Christchurch, New Zealand, event in February, just within the short historic record. A magnitude-6.1 quake under Boston, or any city along the Atlantic seaboard, would be unlikely but would not shock any earth scientist.

But suppose progress had been made in earthquake prediction, as many seismologists 50 years ago believed it would be. We might be in an even bigger mess. The reason is that most natural-hazard predictions are probabilistic. Volcanologists have relatively good forecasting tools but still face dilemmas about false positives; at what point does a government order an evacuation: 75 percent? 50 percent? 25 percent? And what happens when repeated evacuations turn out to be false alarms? Even around Mount Merapi in Indonesia, where a successful prediction averted many deaths, lives may have been lost when some residents delayed evacuation fearing a false alarm. In the U.S. tropical storm zone, as an insurance website reports,

[i]f residents don't believe a storm is as severe as it's described, they'll ignore the warnings, especially if forecasters have been wrong before. It's the 'cry wolf' factor where they've already been told to evacuate for every tropical depression and believe this storm will be just the same.

So maybe we should be thankful that earthquake prediction isn't better and focus on preparedness. As the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach notes about "black swan disasters":

The key is resilience -- buy some extra batteries just for starters. Have an emergency plan. Stuff happens. Be ready. But don't be paranoid.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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