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No, you can't predict earthquakes, the USGS says

Rescue teams are conducting search and rescue operations in Diyarbakir and other parts of southeastern Turkey that were hit by powerful earthquakes on Monday. Anyone claiming to predict quakes, a seismologist tells NPR, is making "scattershot" predictions.
Ilyas Akenigin
AFP via Getty Images
Rescue teams are conducting search and rescue operations in Diyarbakir and other parts of southeastern Turkey that were hit by powerful earthquakes on Monday. Anyone claiming to predict quakes, a seismologist tells NPR, is making "scattershot" predictions.

No scientist has "ever predicted a major earthquake," the U.S. Geological Survey says. It's a point that bears repeating: On the same day a 7.8 magnitude quake and a string of aftershocks caused thousands of deaths in Turkey and Syria, social media swarmed with bogus claims that the cataclysm was predicted just days ago.

It's the latest case of someone gaining attention for making "scattershot statements and predictions" that might seem to have been borne out, Susan Hough, a seismologist in the Earthquake Hazards Program at USGS, told NPR.

"So, yeah, it's the stopped clock that's right twice a day, basically," she said.

Millions see a warning tweet from a 'quake mystic'

As news of the tragedy in southern Turkey and northern Syria spread on Monday, millions of people also saw a Feb. 3 tweet that warned that a strong earthquake would hit the same area. The viral message was from a Dutch man named Frank Hoogerbeets.

If his name rings a bell, it might be because Hoogerbeets also famously claimed in 2015 to know the exact date that California would be hit by The Big One: May 28, 2015. At the time, he urged people to have an escape plan ready, warning of a profoundly dangerous earthquake of 8.8 magnitude or higher.

In his more recent warning, Hoogerbeets tweeted, "Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon)." He included a map, showing a red circle on roughly the same area where the quake hit.

But the spot is a site of frequent activity: it's where three tectonic plates converge. As sad as the human toll is, the strong earthquake "wasn't a shock to any earthquake scientist," Hough said. "Turkey's a known earthquake zone. We've known about these faults, we know earthquakes this size are possible."

Hoogerbeets didn't immediately respond to NPR's request for a response to scientists who question his claims.

In the past, Hoogerbeets has been described as an amateur earthquake "enthusiast" and "quake mystic" who believes the movement of planets in our solar system can help us predict earthquakes. In response to his naysayers, Hoogerbeets acknowledged "much resistance within the scientific community regarding the influence of the planets and the Moon" on seismic activity on Earth. He deemed that attitude "an assumption," backing his position by sharing an image of a 1959 letter to the editor in Nature magazine.

The USGS is unequivocal: No one can predict an earthquake.

"We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future," the agency says. "USGS scientists can only calculate the probability that a significant earthquake will occur (shown on our hazard mapping) in a specific area within a certain number of years."

Monday's quake and dozens of strong aftershocks hit an area that's known to be seismically active: It's in an area characterized by a "triple junction," the point where three tectonic plates (in this case, the Anatolia, Arabia and Africa plates) meet. Three years, ago, a magnitude 6.7 quake hit in an area northeast of this devastating temblor.

The USGS urges people to consider the three elements that would make up a genuine and accurate earthquake prediction: a date and time, a location and a magnitude. Hoogerbeets' warning of a quake hitting "sooner or later" falls well short of the first requirement.

Hough says she's among those who saw the tweet from Hoogerbeets. And while he studies planetary alignments, she says others have claimed ionospheric disturbances can somehow signal a pending quake.

"You just keep getting these supposedly promising results, but nobody has established a track record of reliable predictions," she said. "If something were panning out, the proof would be in the pudding. Someone would be able to predict earthquakes reliably with a track record, and the whole world would take notice if somebody could do that. Nobody has."

Hoogerbeets rejects the USGS criteria; the website for his operation, the Solar System Geometry Survey, says it is "unrealistic" to require an earthquake prediction to be so specific.

Quake experts emphasize preparation, not predictions

"Prediction really isn't the name of the game in this business," Hough said. "We want the buildings to stay standing."

That aspect of the field focuses on things like engineering and construction methods. Scientists and others are also working to improve preparations and rapid alert systems, hoping to prevent worst-case scenarios from playing out.

"One of my colleagues told me years ago that we can predict earthquakes to the extent that we need to," she said. "We know they're going to happen, and we know that certain parts of the world are going to be exposed to them and that we just need to build the environment accordingly."

With enough sensors and a sophisticated computer network, Hough says, emergency systems can also send a quick warning that an earthquake has started.

"It's like the difference between lightning and thunder," she said, describing the way a message in an alarm system can travel faster than the speed of shaking. And in the case of a potential disaster, even 10 seconds can make a big difference.

"It's not going to help your building. You know, you give somebody 10 seconds' warning, the building's going to stand up, or it won't," Hough said. "But there are protective actions you could take with very short term warning. There are systems that will slow down trains, for example. You can move elevators to the nearest floor and open the doors so they don't get stuck."

"You can just take away that horrible element of unpredictability," she said, that people find terrifying.

And then there are the buildings themselves. The scale of the damage is still being tallied in Turkey and Syria. But in video footage of communities devastated by earthquakes and aftershocks, Hough said, there are clues that could help prevent future losses: Some structure are still standing, right next to buildings that suffered horrible collapses.

"And that tells you that you can engineer and build buildings that will stay standing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.