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Predicting the Big One?

Predicting the Big One?

SCEC Receives $1.2 million to Study Earthquake Prediction

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 2006

The Southern California Earthquake Center housed at USC College has taken a step closer in gauging when the Big One might strike.

The W.M. Keck Foundation has awarded the prestigious research center — where scientists from 54 institutions throughout the nation collaborate — a $1.2 million grant to develop a global research program on earthquake predictability.

The first-of-its-kind program will be headquartered at USC College. Rather than a laboratory, it will be called a collaboratory — a center without walls in which scientists throughout the world can conduct research and share data in digital libraries.

“There’s no other laboratory like this in the world,” said Tom Jordan, University Professor and W.M. Keck Foundation Chair of geophysics, the project’s principal investigator and director of SCEC.

“It has the potential to transform science in the global research of earthquakes,” Jordan said. “It’s necessary so that we can move science forward.”

Jordan warned that scientific advancement in earthquake predictability would take time. Although progress has been made, scientists have not agreed on universal standards for prediction experiments.

Called Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability (CSEP), the program’s first goal will be setting standards in tremor prediction experiments and evaluations.

He called the process a “brick-by-brick” approach in building an understanding of earthquake predictability.

“Let’s face it,” Jordan said. “No existing model adequately describes the basic features of dynamic fault rupture. Nor is one available that fully explains the dynamical interactions among faults, because we don’t yet understand the physics of how matter and energy interact during the extreme conditions of rock failure.”

In order to understand earthquake predictability, Jordan said, scientists must be able to conduct experiments under controlled conditions and evaluate findings using an accepted criteria. The new grant brings SCEC and participants one step closer to setting community standards.

Goals of CSEP include:
·    Establishing rigorous methods for registering prediction procedures.
·    Erecting community-endorsed standards for assessing probability-based and alarm-based predictions.
·    Developing hardware and software support that would allow individual researchers and groups to participate in prediction experiments; and update their procedures as results become available.
·    Providing prediction experiments with access to data and monitoring products, authorized by the agencies that produce them.
·    Accommodating a wide-ranging set of prediction experiments involving fault systems in different geologic environments.

“This last objective implies that SCEC cannot go it alone,” Jordan said. “The collaboratory must be developed through international partnerships with scientists who share an interest in earthquake prediction research.”

Jordan said the timing was right to move forward in his area. He noted that 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire that  killed nearly 3,400, according to the city's Board of Supervisors. The population of the city at the time was about 400,000. The quake along 270 miles of the San Andreas Fault caused one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. Modern analysis estimated it had a magnitude of 7.8 or 7.9.

Although Jordan expressed extreme caution about expecting too much, too soon, he said CSEP offered hope in the complex study of earthquake predictability.

“Who knows?” Jordan said. “Maybe the next Big One on the San Andreas Fault won’t come as such a surprise.”