Last week, it was widely reported that there might be an uptick in intense earthquakes in 2018 due to a slight slowdown of the Earth’s rotation. While this may have raised a lot of concern among people, especially those in earthquake-prone regions of the world, the scientists who warned of this possibility have gone on record to clarify their previous warnings, stressing that there’s no real way to scientifically predict the likelihood of earthquakes taking place.
Speaking to the Washington Post, University of Montana geophysicist Rebecca Bendick, who co-authored the aforementioned study hinting at a possible correlation between the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and a spike in earthquakes, said that she feels “very awful” for those who were alarmed by the initial reports on her recent research. This was based on over a hundred years of historical records, and with the above correlation in mind, Bendick and her colleague, University of Colorado at Boulder geophysicist Roger Bilham, hinted that scientists could possibly be able to predict if earthquakes will be more prevalent in certain years.
With most publications focusing on the possibility that there would be more significant earthquakes in 2018, this week’s Washington Post report stressed that there are myriad other variables that could influence the chances of tremors taking place in a given timeframe. These “global and complex” factors are still difficult to figure out, and while there are existing ways to forecast earthquake threats in specific areas, these methods cannot be described as conclusively accurate.
As the Washington Post further noted, there haven’t been any follow-up studies to corroborate Bendick and Bilham’s research, which was first published in August in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. There have also been outside scientists who have cast doubt on these recent findings, including United States Geological Survey geophysicist Ken Hudnut, who told Popular Science that the study showed a correlation between the Earth’s rotation slowing down and a rise in earthquakes, but failed to prove any causality, or definitive proof that slower rotation patterns directly lead to an uptick in major quakes.
Even if it does turn out that there will be more large earthquakes in 2018, Hudnut added that having five to six years’ worth of advance notice based on the correlation, as Bendick and Bilham’s paper suggests, might not help much when it comes to disaster planning.
“I work with disaster planners. That’s a lot of what I do. If I’m an emergency planner on a regional or local level in the state of California, what I’m thinking about is how can we can roll trucks. Are we going to open firehouse doors and roll trucks out, yes or no?”
Regarding the much-cited warning that our planet might experience as many as 20 big earthquakes in 2018, with such patterns taking place every 32 years or so, Bendick stressed that there is no specific pattern where one can accurately forecast an uptick in major tremors.
“If it were that [simple], people would have found [the pattern] ages ago. That would be super obvious in the record.”
Taking stock of the perceived “sensationalism” that came with many reports on her research, Bendick told the Washington Post that one shouldn’t assume that there will indeed be a rise in intense earthquake activity in 2018. While such events might still be more likely to happen next year, she added that the paper she penned with Bilham focused mainly on “probabilities, not predictions,” with many other possible factors driving a spike in tremors at various points in our planet’s history.
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