What Does Japan’s Quake Mean for the U.S.?
Fri Mar 25,2011
With a column I wrote recently, I seem to have helped reignite a debate that enrages many geophysicists: Do quakes occur in clusters—and if so, what does Japan’s portend for the U.S.? The answer remains far from clear.
Just as with any academic community, the world of geophysics is much divided. While a good number of scientists see as their central mission the need to be able to predict earthquakes, many utterly abhor the notion. Charles Richter (he of the Scale) was vehement: “I have a horror of predictions and predictors,” he wrote in 1977. “Journalists and the general public rush to any suggestion of earthquake prediction like hogs toward a full trough.”
This week I have found myself in the midst of a schism, one that has become apparent in the aftermath of Japan’s Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11. That catastrophe has reignited a vigorous argument over whether the various grave geological events that have lately occurred around the Pacific’s so-called Ring of Fire—severe earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile, and now Japan—have left the thus-far seismically untouched Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada peculiarly vulnerable. It is a dispute over the notion of “earthquake prediction,” more technical than philosophical, and in essence it revolves around two related questions: Do earthquakes occur in clusters, both in time and place? And if they do, might one quake trigger another?