Columbia, US: According to a study conducted by University of Missouri (MU) researchers earthquake hazard maps failed to predict some of the largest and deadliest quakes in recent history. An MU scientist and his colleagues recently studied the reasons for the maps’ failure to forecast these quakes. They also explored ways to improve the maps. Developing better hazard maps and alerting people to their limitations could potentially save lives and money in areas such as the New Madrid, Missouri fault zone.
“Forecasting earthquakes involves many uncertainties, so we should inform the public of these uncertainties,” said Mian Liu, of MU’s department of geological sciences. “The public is accustomed to the uncertainties of weather forecasting, but foreseeing where and when earthquakes may strike is far more difficult. Too much reliance on earthquake hazard maps can have serious consequences. Two suggestions may improve this situation. First, we recommend a better communication of the uncertainties, which would allow citizens to make more informed decisions about how to best use their resources. Second, seismic hazard maps must be empirically tested to find out how reliable they are and thus improve them.”
Liu and his colleagues suggest testing maps against what is called a null hypothesis, the possibility that the likelihood of an earthquake in a given area – like Japan – is uniform. Testing would show which mapping approaches were better at forecasting earthquakes and subsequently improve the maps.
Liu and his colleagues at Northwestern University and the University of Tokyo detailed how hazard maps had failed in three major quakes that struck within a decade of each other. The researchers interpreted the shortcomings of hazard maps as the result of bad assumptions, bad data, bad physics and bad luck.
“We’re playing a complicated game against nature,” said the study’s first author, Seth Stein of Northwestern University. “It’s a very high stakes game. We don’t really understand all the rules very well. As a result, our ability to assess earthquake hazards often isn’t very good, and the policies that we make to mitigate earthquake hazards sometimes aren’t well thought out. For example, the billions of dollars the Japanese spent on tsunami defenses were largely wasted.
“We need to very carefully try to formulate the best strategies we can, given the limits of our knowledge,” Stein said. “Understanding the uncertainties in earthquake hazard maps, testing them, and improving them is important if we want to do better than we’ve done so far.”
The study, “Why earthquake hazard maps often fail and what to do about it,” was published by the journal Tectonophysics.