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Monday, April 11, 2011

Science can predict large earthquakes

Many were surprised by the sudden occurrence of the powerful earthquake that hit Japan on 11 March.
People were surprised because many believe—or were led to believe—that huge earthquakes at magnitude 9.0 capable of generating 10-meter tsunami waves cannot be predicted by modern science. Well, at least one person does not think so.
Dr. Masanobu Shishikura and colleagues published a paper in August 2010 about the likely occurrence of a tsunami.
"We cannot deny the possibility that [such a tsunami] will occur again in the near future," the 41-year-old researcher said in his paper that appeared in the Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center in Tsukuba.
According to an article in Science Links Japan, Dr. Shishikura, who investigates the earthquake phenomena in the Kantō region, uses several tools to be able to predict when tremor and tsunami will happen.
Japan's Kantō region is one of the two areas that were most-hit during the recent temblor. It consists of the following prefectures: Chiba, Gunma, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Saitama, Tochigi and Tokyo.
The other badly damaged region is Tōhoku and consists of Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures.
Dr. Shishikura studies folklore, fossils, history, rocks and soil to be able to predict when the next Big One will happen.
The article does not describe the occurrence in a way that we think it will be. It is more like a big tremor will happen in the "next 30 years."
A report by The Wall Street Journal highlights the importance of history. Many of these big quakes happen every 100 to 150 years. Therefore, data that predates recorded history is essential. Folklore comes into play here as stories that are passed from one generation to another may not always appear in written records.
We know for a fact that Japan is a very good source of historical materials that goes back to thousands of years.
The Japanese researcher also studies fossils, rocks and soil to complete the picture. Through these tools, he is able to trace whether a tsunami occurred before. For example, carbon-dating of fossilized specie will reveal whether that specie were naturally occurring in that layer of soil during that particular time. If it were found several meters above the layer of soil, it is highly likely that that specie was washed away by the tsunami. And his objective findings complement each other when compared to when the earthquake happened in history.
His method is akin to looking back at the past to know what will happen in the future.
Of course, it is understandable that all the results need to be put together to understand the nature of big earthquakes—when, where and how powerful if they will happen. The magnitude of the next huge quake is difficult to say according to the article.
Dr. Shishikura says that his field called paleoseismology is relatively young and not many get to be interested in studying events that will happen once every 500 years.
He also laments the fact that one local official ignored his request to dig holes to obtain data saying his research is a nuisance.
The importance of his research lies in the fact that it can warn people to be prepared or avoid building houses or businesses (okay, nuclear plants) in areas that are prone to disasters like what happened last month.
Although many see Japan as the most prepared nation to deal with disasters, the Japanese think they are not so much prepared.
If that were so, what about us?
Watch the attached video.
Details of this report here.

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