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Column: Geologists and seismologists still struggle to predict earthquakes
Rudi Kiefer

Earthquakes occur every day, and unlike other disasters, human action isn’t contributing to producing them. Indonesia just dodged another bullet when a 6.9 magnitude quake struck in the Banda Sea north of Timor on August 21. Luckily, it occurred way beneath the ocean floor at a depth of 400 miles. In Kupang City, on the southeastern end of Timor, buildings trembled and residents were frightened, but it wasn’t a repeat of the September, 2018 earthquake that hit Sulawesi Island, the roughly H-shaped one north of Timor. At that time, more than 800 lives were lost and massive destruction occurred in the city of Palu, home to 335,000 people. The 2018 quake measured 7.5 on the magnitude scale, but that doesn’t make it more powerful by just a fraction. Every increase of a full number on the Richter Scale means a tenfold increase in power.

Geologists and seismologists still struggle to find the golden bullet that lets us predict an earthquake. Population in the San Francisco Bay area is now approaching the 8 million mark. Many remember the horror of the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta quake near Santa Cruz. At Candlestick Park, cameras recorded the shaking as the World Series was about to begin. Like the recent Indonesia one, it measured 6.9 magnitude. But that was sufficient to collapse raised sections of I-880 in Oakland, killing hapless motorists when their cars were crushed beneath the massive sections of concrete that settled on them.

Scientists have searched sores of factors for clues that would predict a quake. Unusual behavior of pasture animals, panicky movement of aquarium fish, sudden radio waves, and slow movement of the ground between fault lines provide some clues. But none of these are a sure-fire way to say for certain that a massive quake is coming. Even without the pandemic, evacuating a part of California as large as the Bay Area is impossible.

In 1975, noting a pattern of early shock waves, China actually predicted a major earthquake near Tangshan in Hebei Province, 120 miles east of Beijing. The success was short-lived. On July 28, 1976, a 7.6 magnitude quake destroyed the city and caused more than a quarter-million fatalities. The current state of earthquake science is similar to efforts at predicting hurricanes: We can do a great job observing and measuring them. But we can’t forecast them.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at