The recent earthquakes that have devastated parts of Turkey and Syria have brought increased attention to the scientific field of seismology – the study of earthquakes and the propagation of elastic waves through the Earth or other planetary bodies.
After one researcher went viral on Monday for allegedly forecasting the earthquake just three days prior to its occurrence, many are now wondering whether it is possible to predict earthquakes.
The mainstream scientific position is generally that it is not currently possible to predict earthquakes. Claims of predictions are often controversial and met with skepticism. In addition, most seismologists draw a distinction between earthquake “predictions” and earthquake “forecasting”.
What qualifies as an earthquake prediction?
According to several scientific bodies, for an earthquake prediction to be considered legitimate, specific criteria must be met.
“A prediction of an earthquake needs to state exactly where and when the event will happen, with enough specifics to be useful for response planning purposes… Without a specific date or location, a statement cannot be a prediction.” says the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN)
The US Geological Survey (USGS) has a similar set of criteria. The USGS says that in order for an earthquake prediction to be legitimate, the date and time, the location, and the magnitude must be correctly defined.
Both bodies maintain that earthquakes cannot be predicted. “Currently, no one can predict where or when big earthquakes will occur,” says the PNSN.
Similarly, the USGS has said that “Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.”
In a similar vein, the Caltech Science Exchange argues that “It is not currently possible to predict exactly when and where an earthquake will occur, nor how large it will be.”
Earthquake forecasting vs prediction
Although most seismologists do not believe that it is presently possible to predict an earthquake, forecasting is commonly accepted as viable.
The University of California Davis defines the differences between prediction and forecasting thus: “In the context of earthquakes, prediction involves specifying the location, time, and size of an earthquake. Forecasting involves giving a probability of an earthquake in a given area over a period of time, which may be months or years.”
The USGS, which has dismissed the immediate possibility of prediction in very certain terms, has said of forecasting, “if there is a scientific basis, a forecast might be made in probabilistic terms.”
Earthquake Researcher goes viral on Twitter
Despite the dominant view in seismology that earthquakes cannot be predicted, one researcher went viral on Twitter for supposedly doing just that.
On Friday, February 3, Frank Hoogerbeets posted on Twitter, “Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon).”
The post was accompanied by a map highlighting the area Hoogerbeets expected to be affected by seismic activity. After the earthquake struck, just three days later, on Monday, the tweet went viral with more than 48 million views and over 47,500 retweets. Many Twitter users who reshared the tweet have claimed that Hoogerbeets accurately predicted the earthquake.
Sooner or later there will be a ~M 7.5 #earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon). #deprem pic.twitter.com/6CcSnjJmCV
— Frank Hoogerbeets (@hogrbe) February 3, 2023
Hoogerbeets works for a research institute called the SSGEOS. The institute’s purpose is “monitoring geometry between celestial bodies related to seismic activity.” According to the SSGEOS, their monitoring activities are based on evidence that “specific geometry in the Solar System may cause larger earthquakes”.
Hoogerbeets’ viral earthquake “prediction” has contributed to increased interest in the field of seismology, but it has also sparked debate regarding the possibility of accurate earthquake predictions.
Susan Hough, a seismologist in the Earthquake Hazards Program at USGS, dismissed claims that anyone had accurately predicted the two earthquakes which shook Turkey and Syria.
Hough told NPR that “scattershot statements and predictions” do not qualify as accurate predictions. She added that the earthquake on Monday “wasn’t a shock to any earthquake scientist… Turkey’s a known earthquake zone. We’ve known about these faults, we know earthquakes this size are possible.”
Hoogerbeets has since responded to the controversy surrounding his work. “A lot is being said about my work, only little of it is true,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
A PhD climatologist claims that I "predict a big earthquake every day."
A lot is being said about my work, only little of it is true.
Also note the words "of course nonsense" – meaning we do not have to look into it because it cannot be true. https://t.co/ExbCp5j5X8
— Frank Hoogerbeets (@hogrbe) February 7, 2023
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