Italian Scientists Convicted of Not Predicting Earthquake; Can Anyone?
Scientists at the Alaska and West Coast Tsunami Warning Center say no
PALMER - Six scientists and a government official from Italy have been sentenced to six years in prison after a judge said they failed to accurately predict an earthquake that killed 300 in 2009. But can anyone actually forecast when an earthquake will happen? Scientists at the Alaska and West Coast Tsunami Warning Center say no. “We can't predict earthquakes, so being held responsible for predicting an earthquake that can't be predicted is a big expectation,” said director Paul Whitmore.
At the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, it’s all about response: How soon after an earthquake can scientists figure out if there will be a tsunami? And if one comes, how many people will it affect?
“There are three parameters: depth, magnitude and location, and we have a very prescripted set of procedures for areas of the world as to what magnitude and what depth that we'll call a warning,” said Whitmore.
Using current technology scientists can monitor primary waves. If there’s a spike, that could indicate a secondary wave—which carries the most seismic activity—is on the way. But the time between the spike and an actual earthquake is only 10 to 60 seconds, and that’s about all the warning there is.
“It's doesn't help you with predicting that an event will occur itself; it's just a response to the event,” said Whitmore.
Although they collect data from 600 monitoring sites from around the world, it’s Alaska that keeps this crew busy. Around the state there’s at least one earthquake, magnitude four or higher, every day. Monday morning there was a 4.4 shaker in the Aleutian chain.
“We're a very seismically active area of the world. It's estimated about 10 percent of the seismic energy in the world comes from Alaska,” said Whitmore.
Basically, if an earthquake happens off the coast, the Tsunami Warning Center can give us a heads up as to whether a tsunami is on the way. If a quake hits inland there’s really no way to know it’s coming until it’s too late.