University Professor Thomas Jordan, W. M. Keck Foundation Chair in Geological Sciences and professor of earth sciences, has won the 2012 Outstanding Contribution to the Public Understanding of the Geosciences Award.
Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), housed in USC Dornsife, received the award given by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) during a ceremony in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Nov. 4.
“Professor Jordan has participated in extensive collaborative efforts at all levels of society, including efforts with various government officials, engineers and other professionals to broaden public understanding of earthquakes,” AGI Executive Director P. Patrick Leahy said. “Through his role as director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and chair of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection, Jordan has eloquently communicated the importance of earthquake literacy and preparedness around the world.”
The International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection was formed in the wake of the 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila, Italy. As chair, Jordan led an international team of scientists who produced a 77-page document for the Italian government that assessed the scientific knowledge of earthquake predictability and provided guidelines for the implementation of operational earthquake forecasting.
Although considerable research is being devoted to the science of short-term earthquake forecasting, the standardization of operational procedures is in a nascent stage of development, Jordan wrote in the report.
The problem is challenging because large earthquakes cannot be reliably predicted for specific regions over time scales less than decades. Therefore, short-term forecasts of such events never project high probabilities, and their incremental benefits for civil protection — relative to long-term seismic hazard analysis — have not been convincingly demonstrated. Under these circumstances, governmental agencies with statutory responsibilities for earthquake forecasting have been cautious in developing operational capabilities of the sort described in the report.
Nevertheless, public expectations that any valid information about enhanced seismic risk will be made available and effectively utilized are clearly rising.
“If you’re on the Gulf Coast where I come from and there’s a hurricane in the gulf and it’s headed someplace, there are advisories about what you should do, which areas are going to get hit and so forth,” Jordan said. “But that’s because you can see it coming. With earthquakes, we really can’t see them coming but we do have some information about earthquake probabilities. So we need to put into place systems that can provide that information to the public.”
In the aftermath of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, an Italian court in October sentenced six scientists and a government official to six years in prison for manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly quake.
The seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were accused of negligence and malpractice in evaluating the danger and keeping the public informed of the risks.
The case has drawn international outrage including from the American Geophysical Union, which warned the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising and working with governments on seismic risk assessments.
“I’m afraid it might teach scientists to keep their mouths shut,” Jordan said. “But I’m a little bit optimistic myself that this tragedy and the tremendous problem this is causing will make people think through the forecasts carefully. It illustrates that we have to take this issue seriously from the point of view of risk management.”
Jordan said that Italian earthquake experts are at the forefront of the research needed for the implementation of operational earthquake forecasting.
“This report highlights their accomplishments and provides a roadmap for building upon their current efforts,” Jordan wrote in the document. “While written for this purpose, the commission hopes that its study will be useful not only in Italy, but also in other seismically active regions where operational earthquake forecasting may be warranted.”
Jordan hopes that the recommendations in his report will be implemented in California as well as Italy.
“The report was written for Italy but it is being read in all countries,” Jordan said. “Just this past year partly because of the report, the U.S. Geological Survey put into place a new program called Operational Earthquake Forecasting. So the report is having an impact even here.”
Jordan was humbled by the award.
“It’s a great honor because of all the things I do as a scientist, adviser, teacher and so forth, providing information to the public about the hazards and risks of earthquakes is probably the most important.”
In part, the report concludes that the public should be provided with open sources of information about the short-term probabilities of future earthquakes that are authoritative, scientific, consistent and timely.
These sources should properly convey the aleatory and epistemic uncertainties in the operational forecasts.
Other recommendations include:
• Earthquake probabilities should be based on operationally qualified, regularly updated seismicity forecasting systems. All operational procedures should be rigorously reviewed and updated by experts in the creation, delivery and utility of earthquake forecasts.
• The quality of all operational models should be evaluated for reliability and skill by retrospective testing, and the models should be under continuous prospective testing against established long-term forecasts and a wide variety of alternative time-dependent models.
• Short-term models used in operational forecasting should be consistent with the long-term forecasts used in probabilistic seismic hazard analysis.
• Alert procedures should be standardized to facilitate decisions at different levels of government and among the public. Earthquake probability thresholds should be established to guide alert levels based, when feasible, on objective analysis of costs and benefits.
In establishing these probability thresholds, the report states, consideration should be given to the less tangible aspects of value-of-information such as gains in psychological preparedness and resilience.