by Franklin Wolfe
figures by Abagail Burrus

Over the past half-century, earthquakes have been the leading cause of death from natural disasters and have imposed dramatic cultural, economic, and political impacts on society. Compounding their inherent physical hazard is how they strike suddenly without obvious warning, and how they possess a ‘fatal attraction‘ for humans—most of the world’s largest cities lie in areas of major seismic activity.

As a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University with a focus on understanding earthquake phenomena, the most common question people ask me is, “So, when is the next big earthquake going to happen?” Unfortunately, the answer is somewhat dissatisfying because the truth is, we really don’t know.

Why is this the case? What is so special about earthquakes that make them so difficult to forecast? Will we ever uncover a reliable prediction method? Answers to these questions are the Holy Grail of earthquake science and, if answered, could protect society from the next big earthquake catastrophe.

What is an earthquake?

The Earth’s rigid outermost layer consists of seven major pieces called plates. These plates move around because they are riding on top of a slowly-flowing layer called the mantle, similar to saltine crackers floating on top of a bowl of thick soup. These plates move at about the same rate as your fingernails grow (i.e., centimeters per year). When these plates collide with, pull apart from, or slide against each other, energy gets stored in the rigid outer layer—this is a similar phenomenon to compressing a spring. This energy is released when it surpasses a certain threshold, causing the ground to shake. This shaking of the Earth’s surface from a sudden release of energy is called an earthquake.

The majority of the world’s earthquakes occur along the plates’ boundaries, such as along the outer edges of the Pacific Ocean, colloquially known as the Ring of Fire (Figure 1). The tremendous forces with which these plates crunch past each other, however, extend beyond the immediate vicinity of the boundary. For example, the crust beneath Los Angeles, which lies ~30 miles from the active plate boundary (i.e., the San Andreas Fault), is riddled with cracks. These cracks, which are called faults, store and release energy in the form of earthquakes. California’s crust is similar to a smashed glass window pane in which the San Andreas Fault is just the most prominent crack.

Figure 1: The Ring of Fire. An area of particularly high earthquake activity (orange) along the outer edges of the Pacific Ocean is known as the ‘Ring of Fire.’ As seen in the inset, California’s crust is riddled with cracks known as faults.

Why is it so difficult to forecast the next big ‘quake?

Let’s start with a simpler part of the question: where will the next ‘big’ earthquake occur?

It has been shown that larger faults typically give rise to larger earthquakes. Theoretically, if all of the faults were mapped, then we should be able to put constraints on the strongest possible earthquakes a given region would experience. This is important because the energy released by earthquakes can vary by a factor of quadrillions.

However, estimating fault size and the corresponding energy released is not always so simple. Faults often exhibit complex geometries, which makes it complicated to model the area of the fault. Additionally, faults can rupture in tandem: thirteen different faults failed at the same time during the Kaikōura Earthquake of 2016 in New Zealand. Furthermore, recent history has demonstrated that earthquake size does not always correlate with damage; depending on where it occurs, a moderate-magnitude earthquake can be more devastating than a ‘big’ one. For example, the 1994 Northridge, CA magnitude 6.7 earthquake resulted in major property damage and loss of life, whereas the 2018 Fiji magnitude 8.2 earthquake, which was 178 times stronger, did not cause any damage. Thus, the magnitude of earthquake does not tell the whole story.

Now for the more complicated part of the question: when will the next big earthquake occur?

Timing is the most difficult challenge in the game of earthquake prediction. In fact, two of the theories that inform our (best) predictions could be flawed. The first theory is called Elastic Rebound Theory, which states that the Earth’s crust will bend and deform under intense stress until, eventually, it breaks under the strain. Slippage along the break (i.e., an earthquake) allows the rock on each side to rebound to a less deformed state and release the stored energy, allowing the process of accumulating strain to begin anew. The second theory is called the Characteristic Earthquake, which describes how the most studied earthquake-generating faults seem to have distinct segments. These segments repeatedly rupture to produce earthquakes of similar magnitudes after accumulating a similar amount of strain in the intervening period between earthquake events. Assuming these two theories always held, you could predict when the next earthquake would happen based on 1) the location of greatest unrelieved strain, 2) the time since the last earthquake on the fault, and 3) precise knowledge of the fault zone (which we may never achieve for many areas).

In 1985, this framework led earthquake scientists to believe that the Parkfield segment of the San Andreas Fault was overdue for an earthquake. The most sophisticated monitoring effort in the world was deployed to capture it in action. Scientists stated confidently that the next earthquake would hit by 1993 at the latest. However, the earthquake occurred over a decade later in 2004 and without any warnings. This type of discordance between predictions and data is common, and no reliable prediction method has been discovered despite numerous attempts. Thus, even the two most prevalent working theories of earthquake prediction, which are grounded in science and useful for understanding earthquake phenomena, are not fully reliable for prediction purposes.

What can we do?

Today, prediction methods are primarily focused on probabilistic earthquake forecasting, which is the statistical assessment of general earthquake hazard in a given area over a certain time frame. Probabilistic forecasting concerns the odds at which an earthquake might occur, while the earlier technique of deterministic prediction involves specifying exactly when an earthquake will occur. Probabilistic forecasting can provide warnings to areas that may be more prone to earthquake risk, allowing them to bolster their earthquake resistance with improved infrastructural designs and emergency measures before a potential future ‘quake occurs.

The probabilistic earthquake prediction technique is currently being employed in California through a model called the Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast 3, which provides authoritative estimates on the likelihood of earthquake fault ruptures throughout the state. As inputs, the tool includes the geometries of all major faults in the region, as well as the most current data on how often earthquakes occur and how strong they are when they do.

Figure 2: An earthquake early warning system in action. When an earthquake begins, fast-moving P waves are detected, and emergency information can be disseminated before the arrival of slower-moving surface waves.

A second promising development is the earthquake early warning system. Upon detection of an earthquake, it provides a real-time warning of seconds to minutes for neighboring regions that might be affected. This system takes advantage of the different speeds of seismic waves that make up the energy radiating from an earthquake. In short, if the system detects the first arrival of the fastest waves, known as P waves, before the arrival of the more-dangerous, slower-moving surface waves, an alarm can be triggered (Figure 2). Using high-speed automation, even a few seconds of warning could be enough to stop machinery, such as trains and elevators, and alert people to get to safety.

Currently, the rail system in the San Francisco Bay Area (BART) uses an earthquake early warning system to automatically slow trains when an earthquake occurs. The system, called ShakeAlert, is now being implemented in California, Oregon, and Washington. Dr. Richard Allen, a seismologist at University of California Berkeley is one of the leaders in this field and helped develop the ShakeAlert system. Allen is developing a smart phone-based detection system that has shown promising early results in densely populated regions.

Mexico City residents are alerted by an Earthquake Early Warning System siren to exit a building just before it collapses.

However, falsely warning of an earthquake that never occurs is costly due to the unnecessary activation of emergency measures and the potential disruptions to commerce and everyday life. And similar to crying wolf, it could undermine the credibility and effectiveness of future warnings. To circumvent these issues, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies could be implemented to detect patterns and signals in the earthquake prediction data that humans cannot see. According to Dr. Brendan Meade, a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Harvard University, the way we approach problems in the geosciences may be reversed in the future. Instead of using equations to model a given system, we may use AI to search for an answer and then try to understand what it means. The application of AI to earthquake prediction is still in its infancy, so time will tell whether this approach is effective.

So, when is the next big earthquake going to happen? We may never know, but I remain optimistic that we can limit earthquake hazards to society. Whether the solution is found through AI, earthquake early warning, or continually improving probabilistic models through better understanding of the earthquake process, there is much improvement that can be made to increase our resiliency.


Franklin Wolfe is a doctoral candidate in the Earth and Planetary Sciences program at Harvard University. Connect with him about earthquake hazards, energy resources, or NBA playoff basketball on LinkedIn.

Abagail Burrus is a third-year Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student who studies elaiophore development.

For more information:

  • Earthquake Debates: In the 1970s, scientists were optimistic that a method for earthquake prediction would soon be found, by 1997, the consensus had turned. As a result, a debate among researchers in the journal Nature ensured, which can be found here. The participants concluded that deterministic, short-term earthquake prediction is unrealistic, but agreed that time-dependent seismic hazard could be justified on both physical and observational grounds.
  • Scientists Prosecuted for False Prediction: Despite the challenges of earthquake prediction, this has not stopped legal authorities from prosecuting scientists and politicians for failing to provide adequate warning. After the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009 in Italy, seven scientists and technicians in Italy were convicted of manslaughter for failing to classify the hazard of the region. They have since been acquitted after a seven-year appeal process.
  • United States Geological Survey Earthquakes Page: The USGS and its partners monitor and report earthquakes, assess earthquake impacts and hazards, and perform research into the causes and effects of earthquakes. Click here for maps of the latest earthquakes, compilations of information about significant earthquakes, data on historic seismicity, frequently asked questions, summary posters, and more!

27 thoughts on “Predicting the Next Big Earthquake

  1. The complexity is unimaginable, though we may have not gotten the solution over decades, but we shall unravel the mystery soon with our complex divine intelligence and with the help of artificial intelligence. Rid on… Please I need help Admin, I wish I could do my M.sc in public health at the Harvard University because I deserve a great knowledge impact by proof. Franklin wolf. God bless your effort in trying to make the earth less harful and habitable.

      1. Hi my name is Suzanne suzannecoates1414@gmail.com, i am a Christian , i know that there is going to be a earthquake very very soon and it will be in the very top scale , it will be a national disaster, god does warn people even today of forecoming events. Suzanne, i sent a message to all the too pastors of international mega churches last week warning them, stumbled across this post of yours this am , take care suzanne.

        1. as a Satanist i do not care for gods warning but thank YOU (you an actual human being not some guy in the sky ) for telling us that we really appreciate it

    1. if I was someone that wanted to predict something I would say the east coast of the United States has been rather quiet I know that in Georgia there’s seismic activity just daily around the milledgeville Georgia area Athens I would think the next big one wouldn’t come from the West coast I would think it would come from the East coast .that again I’m not a scientist actually I know nothing about any of this stuff but I’ve been saying for a long time that there’s a reason why there’s activity daily in that area things are starting to move

  2. I can predict earthquakes of only 5.0 and only 8.0 earthquakes , I have predicted them before, I predict the the next 8.0 earthquake will be around August 1st give or take 2 to 3 days, I can usually pinpoint the exact location but I do not have any , access to current data , I did predict the last earthquake of 8.0 , cuz I have before 🤫

    1. Hi Todd, I live in between the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. Is the quake going to be near this area or farther? Please give us a forecast of this phenomenom if you can. Thank you. Someone curious to know.

  3. Great effort Franklin and figures by Abagail. This was definitely an interesting read. I particularly liked what you said about AI being used to detect patterns. There was a time we could measure earthquakes and now we have highly accurate seismographs. With the increase in earthquake instances, more research dollars will flow to predicting them and we’ll soon have a powerful and reliable solution.

  4. Congratulations, Samuel O, Todd and Wandy, et. al. I finally ventured out of my house to see if the world was any smarter since I self-isolated weeks ago, and was greeted by your moronic utterances. Suffice it to say I am back home now, the door double latched behind me with a chair wedged under the door knob. I wish Steve Jobs and the others were around to see how their techno breakthroughs panned out, with the entire world connected, but gone golden retriever ball-in-the-mouth stupid. Perhaps they have an antidote.

    1. Excellent post. I am likewise peeking out through the blinds, quietly wondering how and when a nation that once included people named Franklin and Fenneman devolved into such a mass of mouth breathers. (Also, I salute your choice of names. You are hereby authorized to continue using it. )
      (signed)
      Bill

    2. I meant Feynman, of course. Just got a sharp note from Groucho about the misspelling.
      Bill

  5. There will be natural disasters in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc. globally. The likes of which the world has never witnessed before. The coasts of America will be effected the most especially the West Coast, Oregon- California. Everything taking place right now is a precursor/ primer of what is to come. This pandemic is just a cushion for our minds before “the perfect storm” so when it happens, and it will happen, it does not fracture our minds completely, allowing us to recover and continue building. You felt it as well as I, the sudden gut wrenching fear and debilitating panic our minds were succumbed to when Covid hit. Like a spider crawling over the skin, we reclused dreadfully in confusion. This is why there is so much confusion going on now and why nobody has any answers. If we were allowed to know what was coming there would be mass hysteria and panic, the system would crumble and fail completely. Covid was a manufactured psychological tactic deployed as a primer to prepare our minds for something more shocking to come. Everything coming out in the media was designed to be seen for shock and distraction value leaving no time to think, only more unanswered questions that will sink you further and further into the floor and down down down the rabbit hole spiraling and spiraling into more darkness and confusion. Move

  6. I kept on thinking on all below questions for years, and went on several theories also. But none of them were able to satisfy me and came up with some other theory.
    1. Why is the earth revolving around the sun from several millions of years at a constant speed, from where it is gaining angular momentum.?
    2. What is the source of this rotation?
    3. The power through which this rotation is possible lies outside of earth or it lies inside / over on earth?
    4. Why do earthquakes come mostly in japan? Why does any island which is surrounded by saline water all over have a source of soft / drinking water also?
    5. Does monsoon only arise from evaporation of surface water of oceans, lakes and any water body?
    6. Is there any reason behind this huge evaporation?
    7. Earthquakes are coming due to a collision of earth crests. it means our earth crust is floating every time. On which matter this is floating?
    8. There are theories which depict that earth’s inner crest is of molten lava, since scientist says that when we go inside the earth temperature will go on increasing, but the water in the ocean ( the deepest depth in pacific ocean ) is not warm. What is the reason behind it.
    9. Why does the monsoon just come after summer only? Why not after winter?
    10. Why is the Sun stable and gives his light throughout the year?

    Then I came up with my own theory of conductivity which satisfies all these queries. But I am looking for a healthy discussion on the above issue and want to draw a conclusive result.

    If any of these questions draw a sense of confusion or doubt in, you. I would like you to please respond with a concrete answer or let’s go ahead deeper to draw better evidence and conclusions.

    I am an enthusiast looking for answers to my queries which can give me a sense of satisfaction.

    Regards,
    S.L. Ranka
    Rajsamand, Rajasthan, INDIA -313324

    1. Just found that angular momentum resultant and found that energy according to it so you found how much earthquake are coming or not
      It’s so easy
      Write your whatapp number also inbox

  7. Dear Franklin Wolfe,
    Concerning the issue of earthquake prediction by deterministic methods of physics I believe that you will find the following paper:
    How “Short” a “Short-term earthquake prediction” can be?
    uploaded at arXiv:1002.2162 [physics.geo-ph]. very interesting.
    The detailed theory has been presented in a monograph under the title
    “Short-term earthquake prediction”
    uploaded in both htm and pdf forms (free downloadable) at
    https://www.earthquakeprediction.gr
    Best regards
    Thanassoulas, C. (B.Sc in Physics, M.Sc – Ph.D in geophysics)

  8. Wow.
    That’s not how planets work. Read a science textbook, and stop throwing kids into the volcano.
    Kthx.

  9. I have some info on something that I’ve been blessed with from my believes, in helping in anyway possible and understand my gift of life and the life of others is very beautiful and loving one and another as one,, just like ants that work together for the best the colony,,,,and I want to share what I believe is right in my heart to do something about what I think I know,, and I really think I know it’s the right thing to do for the human man and woman and everything that is living and breathing,, I hope what I think is good for me I hope can’t save a lot of life’s and money and bring the world together as one ,,,, for the love of others and life, it’s about giving and loving one and another just because,, I hope what ever it is that I know can save life’s, please let me know if I can help with anything I think I can be a big help for the research of predicting Earth quakes,, Earth is good to us let’s be good to mother Earth,,, hopefully I can help in anyway I can please get back at me,, hope the info I have can change the world for good and not bad,,, thanks

  10. Over the last century, the prediction of earthquakes has been a skeptical theory. However, in today’s new age of big data and AI, a team from the Peking University may have almost cracked this mystery.

    You can see their work here: https://aeta.io/

    If anyone is interested in the forecasting of earthquakes this is the team to get in touch with.

  11. During the course of last couple of decades, prediction of natural events has been simplified. In today’s world, technology would be a leading factor in it, as you can see here

    regards

  12. God has revealed with many signs and confirmations, the big one is coming to California October 2022. You can investigate the amazing prophetic signs backing this at 911quake.com

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