Earthquakes are one of nature’s most unpredictable events. Unlike weather events, which can often be forecasted accurately, earthquakes seem to happen when no one is expecting them. However, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology are reporting success for their forecast of an earthquake last year, not only figuring out the earthquake’s location, but also its magnitude.
In September, 2012, the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica experienced an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6. Despite the strength of the earthquake, there were no fatalities. This could be because geoscientists forecasted it, accurately stating that a 7.7 to 7.8 magnitude earthquake would occur there around the year 2000, give or take 20 years. Because of this forecast, the area prepared for the worse: doing what they could to make buildings more secure and making its people aware of what to do when an earthquake happens. There was some damage, but in the end, this forecast saved lives.
To make their forecast, the scientists mapped out the area of the fault line and its subduction: one plate pushing underneath another. These plates are constantly moving and sometimes slip, producing a large earthquake. Because this particular region is prone to earthquakes of at least a 7 magnitude, scientists researched the patterns using GPS stations that monitored every movement made by the plates in that region. They carefully studied the fault and found the area they believed most likely to slip next and narrowed it down to when that would happen based on data about previous quakes.
Unfortunately, a forecast isn’t the same as a predicting an earthquake. That said, Nicoya was a special case study:
“Nicoya is the only place on Earth where we’ve actually been able to get a very accurate image of the locked patch because it occurs directly under land. If we want to understand the potential for large earthquakes, then we really need to start doing more seafloor observations.”
But with enough warning, like with weather forecasts, precautions can be taken to protect both buildings and people. This, along with new technology like early earthquake warning systems and apps that help detect impending quakes, more lives can be saved when large earthquakes strike.