« Freakonomics Radio

28. Why Can’t We Predict Earthquakes?

2011-03-30 | 🔗
We talk to a U.S. Geological Survey physicist about the science -- and folly -- of predicting earthquakes. There are lots of known knowns; and, fortunately, not too many unknown unknowns. But it's the known unknowns -- the timing of the next Big One -- that are the most dangerous.
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Thanks to Pennsylvania, lottery, scratch ass, pennsylvanians or scratching their way to fine with new games every month. Big top rise and second chance, drawings, excitements, always in order. So Try Pennsylvania, lottery, scratch offer your ticket to fund and get yours today. Keep on scratching must be eighteen or older. Please play responsibly benefits older pennsylvanians every day. If you like to listen to, Can economics radio without ads the police? Do that is sticker premium five dollars a month, and you can get a free month trial by going to stick your premium dot com and use a promo code freak. You also get access to all our bonus, episodes and you'll be supporting our show too, but sticker premium dot com, promo code freak thanks, The Tokyo earthquake of the japanese coast on March, eleventh measured, nine point: zero on the Richter scale, that's the fourth biggest,
courted earthquake in the world, since nineteen hundred the worst in Japan since modern instruments were first used a hundred thirty years ago, the earthquake, and the tsunami triggered led this. fucking damage, loss of life, loss of property, all sorts of aftermath issues, but Shocking is the damage has been the earthquake itself. Wasn't all that surprised seismologists the science, study earthquakes? They know a great deal. about where their likely to occur. How serious they are likely to be. The fact is that, according the? U S, GS. That's the United States Geological survey said million earthquakes happen around the world every year, only a select few make us sit up and take notice. Japan, unfortunately, is one of the. This is where those select few tend to occur. So how good are we at predicting the next big earthquake
how good are we prediction and general? That's the thing of an hour long special were producing right now to air. Later this year and public radio stations predicting the future almost impossible. That said, human beings are practically a dick, Two prediction with something serious: earthquakes can't blame them. That's what the japanese earthquakes sounded like, as recorded beneath the ocean surface by Japan's agency, from marine earths Science and technology we walk in there and you got back in the fall, I visited the: U S: G S office in Menlo Park, California, it's just a few miles from the San Andreas fault. The most serious earthquake threaten this country at the time, the most reed.
and earthquakes in memory had been in Haiti and she lay not in Japan. I want to talk to a GEO physicist about earthquake, Dixon! I knew they had a machine there in the lab. Okay, so so described just one. We are so we're one of the laboratories where we have a very large machine. The simulates earthquakes now at this particular apparatus does something very interesting. It starts sliding slowly initial in a small spot in there, slow sliding will grow to a critical size until in earthquake happens, that sound, you heard them Actually, the sound of the scientists Wiping his hand on the machine? The real sound the machine makes is about like this. yeah. I've got to admit. When I first heard about the: U S: GS is earthquakes, simulator envisioned something
more dramatic, some kind of amusement park ride or something? But it's just a middle frame, a few yards across the big slab of rock inside in the frame is compressed by hydraulic pressure. The earthquake simulates then, is vanishing a small, but still, how does this sound transit? into that and how can that knowledge be used to predict the next big one, whether its in Japan in she lay or in California.
from W and Y see an ATM american public media. This is for economics, radio, today earthquakes, equations and the people that, to put it the big one, here's your house, Stephen, does not meet the sign. Is too is good enough to talk me through the science of earthquake prediction, Mine his bill, Ellsworth that I'm a Jew physicist at the? U S geological survey, Ellsworth the genial guy Loki in soft spoken in the sixties, with eye glasses and trim white beard bald. On top, he looks like a guy, whose very comfortable spinning long days in the lab digging into the earthquake data, but want to know. If you'd ever experienced a real, quick.
The most exciting earthquake I've been in was the nineteen eighty nine lower creator is quick and I was was at the end of the work day and I was closing down my computer going home to enjoy the wheel series three oral surgery, I felt something that I'd never experienced before. It was a very low frequency wave the very large amplitude large enough. You noticed something was going on and I, Fortunately, guess that this was the p wave of the fast running wave of an earthquake. In that the day s way the storm shaking wave was to come later. So I immediately got up moved the door frame in my office place myself therein road through the sheer wave which shook the building hard enough. You can hear things racking in moving. You could hear the being shaking you can hear things as soon as the shaking it stopped. I walked. The lights were out since we lost electrical power throughout the region.
Which meant that the high tech, digital telephones were dead, I walked down. The hallway knew there was an old old fashioned in a like telephone and called my colleagues at the. U S: GS headquarters. Go back in Reston Virginia, who were also getting ready to enjoy the ball game and said our world has just changed and edit even had. I see you're wearing a wedding ring your married. Now I guess you married then I was indeed but the fact is that, after the earthquake hit here, your first phone was to your USDA seismology colleagues, frontier waves, that true, it is true she knew that when the earthquake hit Sunday that you must see before a while better I did contact or shortly thereafter and things were fine at home, but that's what and when you marry seismologists in you, live in northern California rates Ellsworth
way for our right. After the long period of earthquake or as some people remember it, the World Series earthquake it hit six point: nine on the Richter scale killed sixty three people in northern California The official death toll from the japanese earthquake has already pay Nine thousand likely go much higher there all all kinds of reasons to want to know as much as possible about the next big earthquake to be able to predict as much as you can as accurately as you can. So that's what I asked Ellsworth about where it is the word. Should fall into this, where we're interested in predicting three things about earthquakes, one is where will they occur? The second is how strong, where they shake the ground when they do occur, and then the third question is: when will they occur? The first two are in pretty good shape. Actually, the third one is. really tough problem and I'm guessing that when you go to friends house, there's a cocktail party barbecue. Is that what they want to know from you
build. When is the big one, and how do I get out of here? That's usually the question they ask and in my response is usually that that's a little bit like asking could should I be buckling up my seat belt in my car just before the accident better to put it on ahead of time and better to be planning, for you know how to drive safely and not re about when something bad might happen. If you're prepared you get through the event. Ok, do you feel that there is too much emphasis or too much attention paid to the prediction part of what you do it? You know it's always have, the popular topic since no one knows how to predict earthquakes, it's kind of an open field in people with all sorts of interesting ideas like to get involved. We were, I think, quite optimistic at the beginning of the programme that that prediction was something we could do for your unjust
ending the basic mechanics and, as time is gone by, I think we ve been sobered by what we ve seen that if earthquakes are predictable- and we do not yet know how to do it and there's a good chance that they're not predictable talk a minute about the belief among certain people that they are very good at predicting earthquakes. I think they're many people I have the belief that they can predict earthquakes in the real question is: can you can use you made a prediction before the fact and that death prediction can be tested, the scientific manner where we can certainly say that there is going to be a magnitude five earthquake in the world somewhere today. That's an easy prediction: we can say, there's gonna be a magnitude six earthquake in California in the next good years. That's that's! That's a gimme but in terms of making a prediction that is really testable. That's a much harder thing to do. One of the very interesting
it was done years ago. This was back in the days of telephone answering machine. We had a project that that had a group of volunteers, people who had animals that were very sensitive to the coming earthquakes and the instructions were that when their animals that acted up, they were to call the number and leave a message. There were never any messages left before earthquakes, but lots of messages left after earthquakes and all they had meant to call, but they didn't so, in other words, moments before the earthquake. I notice my cat was pace, back and forth. That's the kind of thing I said we are speaking here at the: U S: Gs Offices in Menlo Park, California, which is how far from it
Andrea S, fault binds, Santa grace is about to six or seven miles up. The hill from a serious were were living in earthquake country. Definitely we. We estimate that the next thirty years there is a better than two to one chance that we're gonna be hit by a fairly major risk. Wake like the one that hit a nineteen eighty nine, and where do you live I Here in Menlo Park, so you live a few miles from the San Andreas Fault line and a little bit further may be from a few others yeah that does it keep you up a night. It doesn't keep me up at night, my hair is sixty years old or so and likely will have some some damage if an earthquake strikes, I dont think its has any chance of collapsing, so I think we'll get through the earthquake. Ok, but it's it's a hazard that I feel I can live with you, sir.
The odds that a serious earthquake will hit this area where we're sitting now by two thousand and forty, our significant damages would be significant, potentially loss of wasting event. Yes, we're agreed on that. We are agreed on that. We've made some estimates based upon the repeat of a big earthquake on the on the Hayward fault. That would be really a very serious event. We be talking about many tens got hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. Do you ever just say why the heck do people live in obvious potential harm's way, so we see with hurricanes that people been flocking by the millions to the places hurricanes happen. Alot California, which has probably more earthquake, danger there
the other state, I'm guessing per per mile per capita that be true, we have the worst exposure in terms of people who are exposed to with quakes. You know we have a case that are just as severe and many many other states. Perhaps what we have done. A better job of in the west is adopting the codes that are necessary for structures to survive. Earthquakes like I could draw a parallel, perhaps return to earth fix that happened this year with very, very different effects, neither within the Eu S, but this past September there was a magnitude, seven earthquake just outside the city of Christ, church in New Zealand and this earthquake did tremendous damage to chimneys and things within the city. There were many older, brick buildings that they collapse, but fortunately it occurred in the middle of the night. There are no life's loss that earthquake is really no different in size and its severity than the one that hit Haiti in January and look at the difference. There engineer
It does work there, obviously bigger earthquakes in smaller earthquakes. The big ones are the ones that people here about the ones that people care about how Earthquakes, however, are there in it been day around the world. That say where we quickly see at earthquake of about magnitude six once a week globally the way that earthquakes work. If you have one magnitude, six you'll probably have ten magnitude. Fives and you'll have a hundred magnitude force in a thousand magnitude. Threes and it just goes on and on down the Richter scale, so in a sense, the earth is organised itself in an interesting way that that the worst it does in the biggest earthquake with those those of the rarest once so, instead of being peppered with damaging, earthquakes. Every day we get the big one wants a century. Coming up what small earth can tell us about the big one and what physicists, think of the public's
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eight thousand wines, four thousand spirits in twenty five hundred years to choose from you- can always expect the unexpected what'll it be today. splore more in store or at total wine dot. Com from W and Y see an eight p M american public media. This is free economics, radio, here's, your host, Stephen Governor, we're in California were big. Earthquakes have happened and caused real damage. In recent years and in far away you're. So talked me a bit about what the future looks like here in house scared. We should be unlike the atmosphere which say, urologist work with. We can't see underground and also Unlike the immunological situation, we don't have satellites and allow us to map the system. We even really know the equations that governed the way that the requests work and it turns out that the small
like some one of the most important things that we can gather, they actually allow us to map out in space where the faults and from that? We can then begin to build these physical models that, hopefully, will lead to more accurate predictions in the future. But did you just say? Did you just say that you don't really understand the equations? Describe eight earthquakes work, that is correct. We have, I was feeling of starting to feel safer around you and all of a sudden will we We know a lot about how seismic waves propagated the earth that we understand, but what actually happens on the fault the moment when the earthquake Starks what leads up to the to the occurrence of the earthquake and how does Propagate we got some good models, but we don't have any other real samples of false that are active today, so science moves forward by people putting something on the line, and then you have to see what happens if you're prediction is correct. Does it mean your theories correct? It means that its possible, if you
prediction is wrong, that it tells you something is wrong with your theory. What people don't remember about science, as you can't prove something is true, but you can prove that is false. So where are we working in this. In this duality of trying to build, our theories better models that can explain the natural world, but knowing that it ultimately they're going to fail some test, the good models work. Well, the dead man's go away in a hurry. Should I move here will be an earthquake. Here, my children are eight and ten. Will there be an earthquake here in their lifetime that is potentially devastating to us. There is certainly a very good chance, there would be an earthquake, but there's really no reason not to move your public. Schools are one of the safest places be for your child ass. You say it's ok. If they're in schools have more about there being on the weekend, I'm worried out so the weekend. You need to think through what your hazardous. You should probably look at the house. You live in his well decide as this one. This earthquake, safe too. I have things that are going to fall down in
you're, someone in bed- you spend a thirty year life in the bed, make sure that nothing is going to follow their and kill. You have a plan these. kind of things that we remind people to do and if you take those very sensible steps, the earthquake problem is not going to be the most severe thing you have to experience your lifetime. What is that I wish? I knew, but it won't be that what did people use, think caused earthquakes. The Greeks thought they were related to gases escaping from the earth. Courson in Japan The tradition is that, The islands are riding on the back of the big catfish that shakes his tail from time to time, but this no, the scientific You're standing of earthquakes really developed in the nineteenth century, when people began to collect systematic observations and and realised that there was a That was map level about the earthquake, shaking in a sense rocks are relatively simple system that everybody knows there brittle. If you
if you strain of hard enough they're going to fracture also elastic that, if you, if you push Them, but not to the point of breaking and then released the force. It'll sprang back and that's exact. What happens in earthquake? Most of the rock is behaving ethically, except the inelastic part along the fault. Said inelastic part, which is the challenge for us to understand. So last year there were a pair of very large earthquakes which was wildly devastating in terms of property in life, the other one somewhat. So one in Haiti, when she lay and its, team, does, though much of the world thought there was an earthquake epidemic upon us. Was there? Is there such a thing? Look at that question were there and unusual number of larger earthquakes either this past year, the past decade, and the answer is no that they're all within statistical norms
and it's when we have a couple of events in a row that that impact society that we hear about it. There were bigger. Quakes there were out in the middle of the ocean. The nobility ever heard of so from a global perspective were not looking at a kind of a global earthquake cluster. What is your work in the size? Malagigi taught you about the human yearning for prediction. In general, we love black and white answers. I think it is very difficult for people to grapple with concepts of probability. So if, if I they that there's a hundred percent chance that the sun is going to rise to Morrow people be pretty confident that that's gonna happen, but if you tell them that that simply by committee, in their car. Today, theyve Dave increase their risk of dying today by a factor of a thousand. If that post to staying home. They have trouble grappling with that decision freeze us out of our cars, but it it indicates
me that that we have a long way to go, is as human beings to understand low probability, events and how to take effective and wise actions and in the light of those there's something weirdly satisfying about hearing and experts say without innovation is that the future is impossible to predict in just about any realm, you can think of finance and politics parenting. Most experts will tell you, they have all the answers about the past the present and the future barely matters at their often wrong, with only one about as often as monkey with a dart board would be right. What matters is that our thirst for prediction is so severe that would drink it up again and again and again, but a scientists like Bill Ellsworth, even with all The data is fingertips and all the computer modeling money can buy. He admits that predicting
Earthquakes to some degree escapes him. I've got to say I find some comfort in that admission. If the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting. You have a problem, then maybe the first step towards predicting the future is admitting you can't some like that you're here a lot more on this topic this summer and freedom. radio on a public radio station near you and economics that gun decisive. Then I don't understand what live disguise may I will be decisive Ben. I understand one like this guy made Reaganomics radio is a co production of W N Y, see a p M american public media and debonnair productions. This episode was produced by Sean when in Christina Roussel and makes by David Herman our staff,
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Transcript generated on 2021-03-17.