Tuesday, April 7, 2009

predicting earthquakes

The NY Times had a bit of a kerfuffle about earthquake prediction after the earthquake in Italy that struck yesterday morning. You see, this Italian guy predicted an earthquake based on radon gas measurements, but he wasn’t specific about exactly where, and he had the date off by about a week. The authorities quashed his prediction, and now he feels vindicated.

Here’s the problem, as I see it. In order to evacuate an entire town, you need to have a fairly good sense that a disaster is imminent. Otherwise, you just get “cry wolf” syndrome. We already have problems trying to evacuate people from known, quantifiable disasters (floods from dam overflow, hurricanes, etc). How many people would evacuate after the first false alarm? The second?

Now, do I think the guy should have been shut down by the Italian government? No, I don’t.

What we should really focus on instead is reinforcing buildings so that they don’t totally collapse into rubble during a relatively minor quake. Or, barring that, enforcing actual building codes for new buildings so that eventually you’ll have less loss of life. Take a cue from Japan, which has tons of earthquakes and minimal loss of life compared to other countries with similar seismic activity.

But designing and enforcing good building codes is a long-term, expensive proposition that may not necessarily pay off in decades, if ever. Much easier to scurry around and point fingers and waste energy on whether or not an earthquake could have been predicted after the fact.

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