Tony Russomanno © May 2004
What would they have done before the 1906 earthquake if they had a warning there was a 50-50 chance the Big One would hit within nine months?
What would we have done in 1989 if we had a similar nine-month warning?
In Palm Springs and throughout the Southern California desert today, there is such a warning. So what are people there doing about it? Not much.
"You can be worried, or be prepared," said Nur Bandek of Upland. "Hopefully, you'll be in an area where nothing will fall on you and you're not under a freeway."
What does the state say people should do about it? Not much.
"We recommended that no specific action be taken based upon the prediction," said Tom Jordan of the California Earthquake Potential Evaluation Council.
The prediction comes from a world-renowned 82-year-old professor of geophysics at UCLA, Vladimir Keilis-Borok. Recently, the soft-spoken Russian academic found himself given the attention of a rock star when he presented his research at a meeting of earthquake scientists in Palm Springs.
"There is a 50-50 chance that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 or more will occur at any time between now and September 5 in the area between southeastern Mojave to Salton Sea," Keilis-Borok said.
The area of the prediction is huge -- about 12,000 square miles -- and too large for a specific warning in Palm Springs or any other desert town. Much of the area is unpopulated, reducing the potential for damage. But if people who live on the flatlands of Palm Springs and other inland communities need to be reminded of earthquakes, they only have to look literally in their backyards. The mountains that jut up suddenly from the desert floor were formed by earthquakes pushing them up. The greatest concentration of mountains generally marks the regions with the greatest concentration of significant earthquakes.
Professor Keilis-Borok's prediction technique looks for what he calls earthquake chains -- smaller quakes that occur in a pattern over a relatively short period of time. Scientists acknowledge Keilis-Borok successfully predicted both the Arroyo Grande quake last December and another one in Japan last September using his earthquake chain analysis in those regions.
California's Earthquake Potential Evaluation Council -- the state agency that determines whether any earthquake prediction is scientifically valid -- says the 2 and 0 record is legitimate, but too small a sample to show reliability.
"After, let's say, ten or so of these predictions have been made, one would begin to build up a statistical understanding of how well they're doing. So you need sort of a track record, a scorecard," said Jordan.
No one has ever come up with a method of predicting earthquakes over the short term that works any better than random chance. The USGS is predicting a 62% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger quake in the Bay Area within a 30-year window. Keilis-Borok's prediction of a 50% chance of a magnitude 6.4 or larger in the desert within a 9-month window significantly shortens the time frame. And that's the key. We all know there are going to be earthquakes. We just don't know when.
But for all the attention Keilis-Borok's prediction is getting, it was never supposed to be made public. Scientists were studying it privately when it leaked out. They were worried that a prediction based on an unproven theory would cause panic. But people we talked to in Palm Springs said, unproven or not, they'd rather have the information.
"We know it's going to happen, and if nothing else, it reminds us that we need to change our water out, make sure we have batteries in our flashlights, things like that," said Jodi Watkinson of Palm Springs. "We choose to live here and we know it's going to happen."
If it happens this spring or summer, earthquake prediction science will undergo a tectonic shift.
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