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The Science of Predicting Earthquakes

U.S. Geological Survey refuses to fund controversial research into electromagnetic signals

As discussed in "Company Takes on Earthquake Predictions," an article that ran in The Bay Citizen over the weekend, a cadre of West Coast electrical engineers believes that earthquakes can be predicted.

The trick, they think, is monitoring fault lines for electromagnetic signals. Such signals were detected in the lead-up to the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake by Stanford University electrical engineering professor Antony Fraser-Smith.

Proponents of the theory speculate that the signals are caused by the movement of underground water, or by electrical currents that are generated when rocks are squeezed. They say the signals might explain radio static and strange lights and animal behavior that have been observed before earthquakes around the world.

Fraser-Smith’s 1989 discovery ignited a long-running feud between electrical engineers, who suspect that the Earth releases telltale electrical signals as pressure builds up before an earthquake, and leading seismologists, who deride such an approach as naive science fiction.

The U.S. Geological Survey abandoned such research after monitors that it operated in the Monterey County community of Parkfield failed to detect electromagnetic signals in the lead-up to an earthquake in 2004. They say decades of research have indicated that the earth does not give off any kind of signals prior to an earthquake.

Debate about the lack of federally funded research into whether electromagnetism can foretell earthquakes was heated during the American Geophysical Union's annual conference in San Francisco in December — and the debate is expected to continue at this year's conference.

Even some USGS researchers interviewed by The Bay Citizen expressed frustration over the agency’s refusal to explore the topic.

When Jonathan Glen, a USGS geophysicist based in Menlo Park, wanted to investigate whether links exist between electromagnetism and earthquakes, he was forced to turn to NASA for funding.

“I have no stake as to whether or not they actually do exist — but I would like to know if they do,” Glen said. “There is generally a pretty poor view of these kinds of studies in general in the seismological community. Most classical seismologists look down on this kind of stuff.”

Working with other government and academic researchers, Glen placed five electromagnetic sensors near fault lines in the Bay Area. The devices are not intended to predict earthquakes. Rather, following an earthquake, they could provide data that would help determine whether earthquake predictions are possible using electromagnetic signals.

Meanwhile, Tom Bleier and his group, QuakeFinder, have deployed 70 electromagnetic sensing devices near fault lines around California and a handful in other countries. Bleier says 130 more are needed in California for a reliable earthquake prediction system. QuakeFinder is funded as a "humanitarian" project by Stellar Solutions, a Palo Alto-based satellite communications company.

Bleier’s devices have not yet predicted an earthquake — but he thinks he has now determined the precise electromagnetic signals to look for in the two weeks before an earthquake strikes and is confident that successful prediction is just a matter of time.

In this video, Bleier says his devices work by measuring the Earth’s local magnetic field and sniffing the air for charged particles.

QuakeFinder - Attempting to Predict Earthquakes in California

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