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What We Can and Cannot Predict about Earthquakes

UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
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Earthquakes cannot currently be predicted and earthquake prediction holds an unusual place in the natural sciences. It is such a tantalizing and, perhaps, insoluble problem that it has been deemed an inappropriate target for decades. However, progress is being made. Statistical predictions of aftershocks are being done commonly. In special cases, such as earthquakes that are triggered by human activity in geothermal or gas fields, prediction seems potentially attainable. Even some of the Earth’s most deadly earthquakes such as the 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake seem to have some unusual activity prior that has only recently become detectable with a new generation of instrumentation. Despite these glimmers of hope, a deep pessimism about societally meaningful earthquake prediction still remains in the scientific community. The interplay between short-term triggers and long-term cycles in determining earthquake timing is still poorly understood. The observational challenges are confounded by deep knowledge gaps about the fundamental mechanics on earthquake faults. A combination of first principle approaches and observational empiricism seems to promises a route forward to determine whether earthquake prediction will forever remain impossible.

Emily Brodsky is a professor and earthquake physicist at UC Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on connecting empirical observations of earthquakes with fundamental physical processes. Prof. Brodsky earned her A.B. from Harvard in 1995 and Ph.D. from Caltech in 2001. She is the recipient of the inaugural 2005 Charles Richter Early Career award from the Seismological Society of America, and the 2008 James Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and she is an AGU Fellow. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) and Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology (IRIS). She has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and presented over 150 invited lectures talks in 30 states and 13 countries. Her work was been featured in major press outlets such as the BBC, NPR, Time Magazine, NY Times, Nature, Reuters, LA Times and The Wall Street Journal.