Men are from Mars, Earthquakes are from Earth


Last week’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, triggered a flurry of earnest but confused conversations around the world. Why, TV reporters asked the experts, can’t we predict earthquakes by now? And the scientists humbly explained, as they do after every earthquake, that it remains impossible to know exactly when and where the earth’s plates will slip. Despite millions of dollars and decades of research, it’s very hard to do.

Then came alarming news: an Italian scientist did indeed predict last
Monday’s quake, it turns out! But no one listened to him. Gioacchino
Giuliani had predicted that a quake would strike a town more than 50 km
south of L’Aquila—several days earlier. He based his forecast on an
increase in emissions of radon gas in the area, a theory which has not been
proven to be reliable.

A travesty, or so it seemed. But let’s pause for a moment: if we could
predict an earthquake, what exactly would we do? Let’s say we knew a
magnitude 7.0 earthquake might hit Los Angeles in the next 30 days. Would
we tell people to evacuate Los Angeles—for a month? Or, if they stayed, to
remain inside and stop driving? In Los Angeles? And what if, like Giuliani,
we got the location wrong? So millions of people fled Los Angeles for…the
epicenter of the quake?

Now imagine that we only had 45 minutes warning of a possible earthquake.
If we were good—really good—we might be able to get a meaningful message on
the airwaves in time. We might be able to remind people to duck, cover and
hold if the shaking starts. We could tell them to stay inside and not
drive. And the warnings would prevent some casualties.

But the truth is, with earthquakes (and hurricanes, fires and floods), the
biggest challenge is not forecasting—not anymore, not in the developed
world. Yes, it is nice to know when the ground is about to shake and the
sky is about to fall, but the hardest problem by far is what to do next—and
how to motivate people to do it.

The final frontier is not picking a date for the apocalypse; it’s getting
people to bolt their bookshelves to the walls and buy earthquake insurance
in advance. The challenge (in Italy and everywhere) is enforcing serious
building codes, the kind that prevent schools from collapsing in even the
worst-case scenarios.

After all, we predicted Hurricane Katrina ad nauseam before it happened.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune predicted it in a five-part series in 2002.
The federal, state and local government predicted it in a detailed training
exercise called Hurricane Pam, conducted in 2004, one year before Katrina.
There was really nothing surprising about how that hurricane played out
(except maybe that the death toll was lower than many had predicted).

And we can sort of predict earthquakes, too. Ready? OK, over the next 30
years, the probability of a major quake occurring in the San Francisco Bay
area is about 67%, according to scientific estimates. Done. The real
mystery is not about the earth’s crust but about us—and whether we will do
everything we can to prevent it from being a catastrophe. The strength of
our houses and our roads matters more than the intensity of the tremor.
That’s why an earthquake in California can kill 63 people, while one of
roughly comparable intensity in Pakistan kills 100,000.