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Scientists explain why earthquakes can't be predicted: 'We just don't know'

Earthquakes cause a huge loss of life and property, however, scientists say that they can't be predicted on a short-term note.

Scientists explain why earthquakes can't be predicted: 'We just don't know'
Image Source: Getty Images/Mehmet Kacmaz

The recent Turkey and Syria earthquake has caused mass destruction and loss of life. People are struggling to survive as their lives have changed overnight. It has posed many questions about how many catastrophes can be prevented and the unpredictable nature of earthquakes. According to Reuters, there are hundreds of earthquakes happening every single day, but they are not strong enough to be noticed. Then there are those enormous ones that result in significant damage and fatalities. 

Image Source: Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell
Image Source: Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell


The tectonic plates that make up the Earth's surface are formed of kilometers of hard rock that have been divided into puzzle-like movable pieces. These plates rest on a sea of hot, liquid rock that rolls as it cools, pushing them around. Volcanoes and earthquakes both happen on the surface where they collide. Seismographs, which once consisted of wriggling needles that recorded ground motion, are now entirely computerized and are utilized by scientists.

A large portion of the data is open-source and automatically connected and there is a worldwide network of these in addition to local and regional networks. Systems can precisely map the location, length and size of an earthquake by integrating at least three observations. Finally, there are a few ways to measure earthquakes, but the one most frequently used is called magnitude. Each step in this measurement is 10 times bigger than the one below it. Although it is well known that earthquakes may cause additional earthquakes, how this occurs is a subject of intense debate among scientists. Earthquakes reveal two contradictions in how humans see the natural world: they occur at depths far beyond human perception and over timescales longer than human experience.

Image Source: Getty Images/Burak Kara
Image Source: Getty Images/Burak Kara


Tim Wright of the UK-based Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) said, "The broad idea about the cause [of earthquakes] being the buildup of strain has been around for a long time but only over the last 20 years have we had the technology to measure that using satellite information." Whether it is feasible to predict an earthquake is a question that scientists are frequently asked. Wright said, "We aren't anywhere near a short-term forecast." The United States Geological Survey, which records global seismic occurrences has a website dedicated to dispelling forecasting myths. After a significant earthquake, there is a vast quantity of data that has to be gathered and analyzed, some of which is instantly helpful.

Image Source: Getty Images/Burak Kara
Image Source: Getty Images/Burak Kara


Wright said, "We can make calculations about places that are more or less likely to have earthquakes as a result of [another]." These instruments are used by his team and others to track the development of strain at well-known defects. They are able to predict with a high degree of accuracy the total quantity of energy that might end up being released in an earthquake at a certain location as well as the rate at which it would be released. He said, "But we just don't know when. We don't know whether it could be a single magnitude 8 earthquake or ten magnitudes 7 earthquakes."

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