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Understanding earthquakes

Earthquake forecasting is sadly among the weakest links in geology as well as science in general
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First Published: Sun, Apr 28 2013. 08 17 PM IST
Afghan residents stand near their homes damaged by a powerful earthquake in Charbagh village in Nangarhar province on Wednesday. Photo: Shah Marai/AFP
Afghan residents stand near their homes damaged by a powerful earthquake in Charbagh village in Nangarhar province on Wednesday. Photo: Shah Marai/AFP
Last week a moderate earthquake hit Afghanistan and its tremors were felt as far away as New Delhi, the latest in a string of tremors to shake Asia in the past week. The 5.7 magnitude earthquake was 40 miles deep with an epicentre 16 miles northwest of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the US Geological Survey said on its website. This was days after a deadlier earthquake rocked the Sichuan province in China.
While there is no evidence yet of an increasing trend in earthquake activity across Asia, it would be premature for seismologists and governments to dismiss this as a freak phenomena.
Earthquake forecasting is sadly among the weakest links in geology as well as science in general. The nadir of this realization was a series of small tremors in Italy that local seismologists said would amount to nothing, but unfortunately culminated in the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy that killed thousands.
It has been increasingly recognized, almost globally, that the traditional approach to science, of formulating a hypothesis and finding data to fit this hypothesis is becoming increasingly inadequate.
Less than half a century ago, monsoon prediction relied almost exclusively on the presumption that understanding how landmasses heated up was enough to predict precipitation patterns.
Years on, measurements at various levels of the atmosphere and now surface temperatures of the oceans are all studiously collected to predict these rainfall patterns.
The most accurate, but still far from ideal weather predictions are now made by supercomputers that are fed myriad data and can spit out correlations that can be frequently tweaked and modified.
Similarly, it is now inadequate to suppose that all that is needed to forecast earthquakes is better and more updated geological data. What is certainly needed is a bigger, more coordinated international data-gathering-and-sharing network that scans a variety of data ranging from historic sunspot cycles to paleo-climatic data and uses computing power to come up with new relationships and hopefully, as a consequence, better predictive knowledge about earthquakes.
To be sure, such approaches are already being tested, but there is no sign yet that India’s scientists are seriously considering such approaches. Seismologists can ignore this, only at the country’s peril.
Does India need to invest more in seismic prediction efforts? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Apr 28 2013. 08 17 PM IST
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