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The Temptation to Treat Hunches As Science in Earthquake Prediction Research

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sunspots, washington dc

Photo courtesy ep_jhu of Flickr under Creative Commons license

I’ve been following earth science closely for many years through the news and in the literature. One thing I can say confidently is that it is both very human and inhuman. The human side is obvious: geoscientists are some of the most interesting (and interested) people I know. But doing science properly means quashing some of our most human traits as we subject our ideas to cold statistical tests. Case in point: earthquake prediction studies.

Humans have a wonderful ability to spot patterns in seemingly random information. We acquired the knack long ago because it helped us spot zebras in the savanna and tigers in the grass. It’s amusing because it lets us see faces in clouds. In science, our pattern-seeking ability is both a tool and a handicap: it leads us to exciting hunches, but glues us to wrong ideas despite our best efforts. The occurrence of earthquakes is so troubling and mysterious that it takes a great effort to stifle our human reactions and pay attention to what the cold numbers and their unintuitive statistics say. I take as today’s topic the relationship between earthquakes and sunspots.

The sun-Earth interface is an exceptionally energetic region, extending over thousands of kilometers from the upper atmosphere into outer space. It conducts electricity and generates complex magnetic disturbances. It’s as changeable and chaotic as the static heard between radio stations or the shimmering displays of the aurora.

It stands to reason that such a sensitive region would respond to changes from below the Earth’s surface just as it does to changes from above. You would think that the release of earthquake energy, in the electrically conducting deep crust, would have effects on this region too.

But “It stands to reason…” and “You would think that…” are hunches, only the beginning of science. Next comes the inhuman part: holding off on coming to conclusions and running the numbers as carefully as we know how. A trickle of scientific papers have noted apparent relationships between various measures of solar activity and earthquakes. But a recent critique of these papers, published in March in Geophysical Research Letters, noted that all of them fell short in one way or another: they used partial sets of data or focused on one region, for instance. They went beyond “It stands to reason,” but only as far as finding an anomaly, something strange—that is to say, “Hmm, look at this.”

The paper’s authors went on to do a textbook, double-checked study comparing the solar records to the earthquake catalogs, including statistical checks and found nothing that chance alone couldn’t explain just as well. (See my more detailed explanation here.)

However, most of us find it terribly tempting to go from “Hmm, look at this” to “Hey, look at that.” And once someone who seems to know what they’re talking about does that, many more people will take assertion as certainty. For a good example, consider the BBC’s weather blogger Paul Hudson. He’s a trained meteorologist who can explain scientific thinking well. Last month, for instance, you can see him deftly handling a common question among the British public: isn’t our summer weather odd? No, he answers, it’s a phenomenon well-known among his fellow scientists: the North Atlantic Oscillation.

But then go back on his blog to the day of the magnitude-9 Tohoku earthquake in March 2011. Not being a seismologist, Hudson fell back on human habits: he remarked upon recent sunspot activity, cited a few unnamed papers, and quoted a fellow opinionater in support of his hunch. On this subject, he scored no better than the average layman. Indeed, I think that posting his off-the-cuff musings on the very day of that massive earthquake under the headline “Is solar activity to blame for Japan’s massive earthquake?” was not responsible journalism. Fortunately, the Betteridge-Marr law of headlines is our friend: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.'”

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Category: Astronomy, Geology

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About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • ozonator

    ~4:00 AM CST 8/4/13

    Andrew Alden,

    You did not include the possibility that AGW could cause quakes, fireballs from space material, and solar events.

    With condolences to all those about to become additional AGW victims –

    “A). Global warming is also known as AGW (anthropogenic global warming). …
    1). Regular qualitative predictions are US for “normal” catastrophic, violent AGW ecosystems (quakes to CMEs to toxic feticide) from the rotten EssoKochFox’s and their willing accomplices. The Red State of Texas will be the AGW epicenter of “natural” catastrophes to be paid for by everyone else. We should also see major cracks in the IMF (interplanetary magnetic field) and monster hurricane ecosystems.

    AGW ecology becomes rocket science … From this Saturday to the next Saturday, the 332nd SEERCH Model (8/4 – 10/13) should produce a decrease in the sunspot number (spaceweather.com). The 305th BAZS=ERC Model (8/4 – 10/13) predicts a 40 – 140 sunspot number. From this Saturday to the next Saturday, the 166th Solar Storm Model (8/4 – 10/13) maximum negative Bz will range from -10 to -30 nT.

    B). Including the odd chance of JJBAL Fireballs with each prediction, the specifics of the Giulaino – Gansu Model (8/4 – 10/13) of extreme AGW earthquake warnings (n= 33) among tectonic energy lines with individual predictions for regions (magnitude in Richters) are:
    1). Saint Kitts (5+) – Virgin Islands (6+) – Dominican Republic (5+) – Cuba (4+) – pRick Perry-anal’s Texas (5+) – Colorado (4+) – Yellowstone (4+);
    2). 37th Simon Bolivar Model (8/4 – 10/13): Bio Bio,Chile (7+) – Brazil (7+) – Costa Rica (7+) – Oaxaca (7+) – Jalisco (7+) – Beverly Hills, California (6+);
    3). Yemen Model:
    a). Azores (6+) – Morocco (5+) – Chad (4+) – Democratic Republic of Congo (6+) – Tanzania (5+) – Mozambique Channel (6+),
    b). Ethiopia (6+) – Gulf of Aden (5+) – Carlsberg Ridge (5+) – Chagos Archipelago (5+) – Sumatra (6+) – Borneo (4+) – Sulawesi (6+) – Halmahera (5+); and
    4). Marianas (7+) – Guam (6+) – Solomons (6+) – Vanuatu (6+) – Fiji (6+) – Tonga (7+).

    C). GBRWE official experimental quake, volcano, and other models are US. … A correct for any of these concurrent earthquake models is anything within 0.5 Richters below given prediction and anything above the prediction for the region (within 100 miles, and additional 50 miles if people felt it). On the open ocean … expanded to 400 miles to be correct … A significant quake is 1 in the correct region that is within a).1.5 Richters below the predicted intensity, b). greater than 95 km in depth (Depths are in km from earthquake.usgs.gov and surface distance are in miles from emsc-csem.org because of availability of usable tools) or causing panic, damage, or injuries, c). part of a reported swarm (5 or more quakes with a online report of multiple quakes to note unusualness) …
    2). standard, 2-weeks model – unless stated otherwise, ALL predictions get at least 2-weeks …
    37). A correct in a fireball event (meteor, meteorite, comet, spaceship junk, and etc.) is within 400 miles of a predicted tectonic (quake and/or volcano) region only under the standard 2-week model. …

    E). For 8/4 – 10/13, remember space cadets – global warming is part rocket science … 1). Officially, there should be AGW solar flare(s) (discharges) in the form of x-ray(s), radio blackout(s) and/or similar energies of farside of the Sun. 3). The HooShooToo Model for predicting AGW flares … an “alert” is predicted with a single day maximum REF of 1,000 – 12,000 pfu”

    (GBRWE 8/4 – 10/13’s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 8/4 – 10/13, 8/3/13).

    • ozonator

      ~9:45 PM CST 8/4/13

      There was 1 correct AGW quake prediction and a “major” crack in the IMF.

      Halmahera was a correct AGW quake prediction in this blog. It was in the “Yemen Model: … b). … Halmahera (5+)” region, within 100 miles of the island, exceeding both the 4.5 Richter and 95 km depth minimums, and in the 1st week of the standard, 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: within 30 miles of Halmahera, “4.7 … 75km NNW of Kota Ternate, Indonesia … 2013-08-04 14:16:52 UTC-05:00 … 124.9 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      For total solar storms, the 166th Solar Storm Model (8/4 – 10/13) was possibly a correct prediction with the largest maximum negative Bz of -13.2, on 8/4/13 at 2024 UT (aka 3:24 PM CST) with -10 to -30 nT predicted (swpc.noaa.gov/ftpdir/lists/ace). It actually exceeded the -10 minimum with a -10.2 at 1516 UT aka 10:16 AM CST – about 6 hours after my AGW prediction.

    • ozonator

      ~11:26 PM CST 8/5/13

      Making 1 more correct and 1 significant AGW quake predictions, and a possibly correct “”alert” … maximum REF”.

      2nd correct). Carlsberg Ridge was a correct AGW quake prediction in the region of the Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Yemen Model … Carlsberg Ridge (5+)” under 8/4 – 10/13, exceeded the 4.5 Richter minimum, well within 400 miles in the open ocean and actually within 150 miles after referring to sitesatlas.com/Atlas/PolAtlas/C15.jpg and other maps, and in the 1st week of the standard 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: “4.7 … Owen Fracture Zone region … 2013-08-04 23:28:06 UTC-05:00 … 9.9 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      1st significant). Democratic Republic of Congo was a significant AGW quake prediction in the region of the Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Yemen Model… Democratic Republic of Congo (6+)” region under 8/4 – 10/13, exceeded the 4.5 Richter minimum for significant, with the epicenter in Lake Albert about 10 miles from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the 1st week of the standard 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: “4.6 … 32km W of Kigorobya, Uganda … 2013-08-05 02:33:59 UTC-05:00 … 30.8 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      2nd possibly correct cosmic event). An “alert” was predicted with a single day maximum REF of 1,000 – 12000 ref. With 5 days to go, “Alerts Issued in August 2013 … Issue Time: 2013 Aug 05 1341 UTC … ALERT: Electron 2MeV Integral Flux exceeded 1000pfu” (“Space Weather Alerts Issued by SWPC”; NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center; swpc.noaa.gov, 8/4 – 10/13). “SDF Number 217 Issued at 2200Z on 05 Aug 2013 … IIA. Geophysical Activity Summary 04/2100Z to 05/2100Z … Electrons greater than 2 MeV at geosynchronous orbit reached a peak level of 2770 pfu” (“Joint USAF/NOAA Report of Solar and Geophysical Activity Report and Forecast”; Prepared jointly by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, Space Weather Prediction Center and the U.S. Air Force; swpc.noaa.gov/forecast.html).

    • ozonator

      ~9:20 PM CST 8/6/13

      This day includes 2 new correct (Vanuatu and Fiji) and 2 new significant (Azores and Oaxaca) quake predictions. This makes an overall total of 4 correct and 3 significant AGW quake predictions. However, “Real seismologists insist that predicting earthquakes is impossible” (“Italy Earthquake: Are Scientists Really Responsible for Deaths?”; uk.ibtimes.com, 9/20/11). Ooops! Went out of his way to fail to report his masters exporting AGW to solar and earthquake “events”. “More settled science: Land temperature isn’t rising, the heat’s hiding in the ocean, AND “The rate of increase in ocean temperature due to climate change is one third of the rate of increase in land temperature.”?!” (extreme EssoKoch pimping/racketeering found on 8/6/13) (Marc ‘Mengele’ Morano, whistle-sucker performing/perfuming the stink at climatedepot.com).

      Twin Vanuatu quakes were a correct AGW quake prediction in the region of in the region of the killer Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Vanuatu (6+)” region under 8/4 – 10/13), easily within 400 miles of the epicenter, and in the 1st week of the concurrent standard 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: “5.7 … 84km S of Lakatoro, Vanuatu … 2013-08-06 12:21:55 UTC-05:00 … 13.9 km” and “5.9 … 89km S of Lakatoro, Vanuatu … 2013-08-06 11:46:18 UTC-05:00 … 8.4 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Fiji was a correct AGW quake prediction in the region of in the region of the killer Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Fiji (6+)” region under 8/4 – 10/13), easily within 400 miles of the epicenter, and in the 1st week of the concurrent standard 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: “5.7 … 129km SW of Ceva-i-Ra, Fiji … 2013-08-06 05:41:32 UTC-05:00 … 10.1 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Azores was a significant AGW quake prediction in the region of the killer Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Yemen Model … Azores (6+)” region under 8/4/10/13, met the 4.5 Richters minimum for significant , within 400 miles of the open ocean, and in the 1st week of the concurrent standard 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: Azores aka “4.5 … 293km NNE of Santa Cruz das Flores, Portugal … 2013-08-06 00:37:00 UTC-05:00 … 28.6 km” and “Nearby Cities … 293km (182mi) NNE of Santa Cruz das Flores, Portugal” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Oaxaca was a significant AGW quake prediction in the region of Simon Bolivar Model. It was in the “37th Simon Bolivar Model (8/4 – 10/13) … Oaxaca (7+)” region, significant by causing panic, within 100 miles of the epicenter, and in the 1st week of the concurrent standard 2-weeks model. “A magnitude 5.1 earthquake hit southern Mexico on Tuesday, shaking buildings in Mexico City … The quake struck … in Guerrero state near Xochistlahuaca, close to Mexico’s Pacific Coast … not far from the border with Oaxaca state, but 300 kilometers (185 miles) away from Mexico City. … After the alert was issued, residents in the capital poured into the streets. … In Guerrero and Oaxaca states, the quake alert sounded on radio stations and loudspeakers, sparking building evacuations” (“5.1 magnitude earthquake hits Mexico: USGS”; Agence France Presse; abs-cbnnews.com, 8/7/13). The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: 20 miles from Oaxaca, “5.1 … 8km NW of Xochistlahuaca, Mexico … 2013-08-06 15:17:32 UTC-05:00 … 30.9 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Just in case, earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map new system not only is late reporting but the Richters reported can still change from the numbers that I report them reporting.

    • ozonator

      ~9:20 PM CST 8/7/13

      This day includes 3 new significant (Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Costa Rica) quake predictions. This makes an overall total of 4 correct and 6 significant AGW quake predictions.

      Sumatra was a significant AGW quake prediction in the region of the killer Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Yemen Model: … b). … Sumatra (6+)” region, easily within 100 miles of the island, exceeding the 4.5 Richter minimum for significant, and in the 1st week of the standard, 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: about 15 miles from the west coast of Sumatra, “4.9 … 84km W of Onan Ganjang, Indonesia … 2013-08-07 00:15:03 UTC-05:00 … 50.3 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Sulawesi was a significant AGW quake prediction in the region of the killer Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model. It was in the “Yemen Model: … b). … Sulawesi (6+)” region, on the coast of the island, exceeding the 4.5 Richter minimum for significant, and in the 1st week of the standard, 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: touching Sulawesi, “4.6 … 24km ENE of Tagolu, Indonesia … 2013-08-06 17:45:07 UTC-05:00 … 38.8 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

      Costa Rica was a significant AGW quake prediction under the Simon Bolivar Model. It was in the the “37th Simon Bolivar Model (8/4 – 10/13): … Costa Rica (7+)” region, about 90 miles from the epicenter in Nicaragua, exceeding the 95 km depth for significant, and in the 1st week of the standard, 2-weeks model. The mostly good people – who have had to ruin their reporting format for the extreme GOP waging a war on science – at the USGS reported with no colored contrasting numbers and letters with no change in color after viewing, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … horizontal distance from nearest extreme GOP boehnered town … Date … Depth below ground: within 90 miles of Costa Rica, “4.3 … 10km WNW of Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua … 2013-08-07 16:30:59 UTC-05:00 … 164.1 km” (earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map – frequently fails when cited).

  • Борис Дмитриевич Яровой

    Технология прогнозирования землетрясений здесь http://earthquakes-prediction.blogspot.ru/p/february-4-1975-in-chinese-province-of.html

  • http://science.kqed.org/quest Craig Rosa

    Hi ozonator – this is Craig, one of the editors of the KQED Science site. While we appreciate your participation, our comments section is not the appropriate place for daily quake prediction updates. If these are available elsewhere, please provide a link. Thank you.

    • ozonator

      My apologies. I thought this blog was to scientifically relate to sunspot and earthquake predictions. Correct predictions for each of these are considered impossible. There is no “link” and daily significant/correct events are very unusual. Thank you for not deleting all or parts like many others without explanation.