cover image Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction

Susan Elizabeth Hough. Princeton University Press, $24.95 (260pp) ISBN 978-0-691-13816-9

Though written before the catastrophe in Haiti, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Hough presents a look at the history of earthquake prediction, explaining why true prediction in the short term remains impossible, that sheds timely light on the intractable potential for seismic disaster. Hough begins in the heady 1960s and '70s, when top researchers still believed that real-time earthquake prediction was within reach. Hough describes theorized earthquake precursors-including electrical conductivity changes in the crust (magnetotellurics), groundwater fluctuations, high- and low-frequency sound waves, and anomalous animal behavior-and global efforts to exploit them for timely predictions; unfortunately, none have proved consistent. To this point, Hough contrasts the famous prediction of the 1975 earthquake in Haicheng, China, with the 1976 Tangshan (China) earthquake, which occurred with no warning and killed upwards of 250,000. Closer to home, an earthquake along the San Andreas fault predicted by the USGS in 1988 didn't materialize until 2004; many geophysicists now believe the best they can do is forecast areas of high probability over decades. Hough concludes that the best way to save lives is through strict construction standards, careful geological evaluation of building sites, and public education, techniques that remain sadly out of reach for the developing world. B&W illus.