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地震不可预报

(2011-03-13 22:58:10)
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杂谈

                               No guess work in earthquake prediction

                                  

                                   

       20 years ago, I was reporting a meeting between Chinese seismologists and their European counterparts. Most Chinese scientists argued that earthquake can be predicted while their international counterparts said that earthquake is unpredictable.

       I was then a science writer with Xinhua News Agency. When I walked back into my newsroom and handed the editor my story titled ‘International scientists skeptical of earthquake prediction”, my editor threw my story into the waste basket. “Earthquake can be predicted,” he said.

       Chinese seismologists and journalists have a tradition of believing that earthquake can be predicted.

       Chinese seismologists suffered another defeat when a massive earthquake struck northeastern coast of Japan last Friday. The earthquake and the consequent tsunami have killed at least 10,000 people.

       While the international scientists have lost faith in earthquake prediction, Prof. Chen Yuntai, a leading Chinese seismologist criticized the government’s plan to stop funding earthquake prediction. “Our failures in predicting Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and Qinghai earthquake last year do not mean that earthquake is unpredictable,” he told the press angrily at the recently-concluded annual meeting of the parliament. “In science, we cannot make decision based on democratic principle of minority following the majority.” Last year, the government allocated 240 million yuan to the State Bureau of Seismology where Prof. Chen is the leading scientist.

       Prof. Chen and his colleagues have designed three time frames for earthquake forecast: long term, intermediate and short-term predictions. Long term prediction involves a time span of a decade or more which would be ridiculous to evacuate the residents. Intermediate prediction spans a few years, which is also meaningless for evacuation. The short-term prediction is to inform the public about the exact time and location of an immediate earthquake, that would be helpful for evacuation.

       But so far, Chinese government and its seismologists have not dared to make any short-term earthquake prediction except Haicheng earthquake during the Cultural Revolution.

       According to the official report, the Haicheng earthquake of magnitude 7.3 in Liaoning Province in February 1975 was predicted as early as in mid-December of 1974 based on observation of unusual behaviors of animals. The local farmers reported they saw hibernating snakes coming out from their holes and into the snow. In the first three days in February, local people saw unusual behaviors of cows, horses, dogs and pigs.     

       During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), earthquake prediction was not merely a scientific experiment, but also part of political struggle. The official media hailed the successful warning of Haicheng earthquake as “being achieved by the sweat and wisdom of workers, peasants and soldiers under the guidance of Mao Zedong’s philosophical thought.” Any disbelief in earthquake prediction would be labeled as a bourgeoisie scientist.

       Unfortunately, the Chinese earthquake prediction suffered a heavy blow the following year when the Tangshan earthquake struck unpredicted and killed at least 240,000 people.

       The idea behind the past Chinese government support for a huge network of seismologists in earthquake prediction is that it is important to know when and where exactly an earthquake will hit so that an evaluation of residents could be arranged.

       But the Chinese seismologists always say that there is a 90 percent chance that an earthquake will occur in the next 20 years. The scientists never tell the public whether the earthquake happen tomorrow or next week.

       Under the education of Chinese seismologists and the propaganda of the government, many Chinese journalists believe in earthquake prediction. They angrily attacked the State Bureau of Seismology for concealing the prediction for Sichuan earthquake in 2008 as part of the government’s effort to focus the national attention only on Beijing Olympics.

       According to both Chinese and international scientists, no significant precursory seismic activity was detected that could have allowed the Chinese government to issue a clear warning before the devastating Scihuan earthquake which killed at least 69,000 people. International scientists also saw nothing unusual which scientists would regard as precursory。

       The Chinese journalists, seismologists along with common people have strong belief in using unusual animal behavior as precursor of massive earthquakes.

       Chinese media and seismologists often tell the story of the 1920 Haiyuan earthquake in Ningxia, the largest earthquake to hit China with a magnitude of 8.5. According to reports of eyewitnesses, prior to this earthquake, wolves were seen running around in packs, dogs were barking unusually, and sparrows were flying around wildly.

       But In 1996, a group of leading seismologists from Japan and the United States published a paper on Science magazine with the title “Earthquakes cannot be predicted. “

       The article writes, “An earthquake results from sudden slip on a geological fault. Such fracture and failure problems are notoriously intractable. The leading seismological authorities of each era have generally concluded that earthquake prediction is not feasible.”

       Richter, developer of the eponymous magnitude scale, commented in 1977, "Journalists and the general public rush to any suggestion of earthquake prediction like hogs toward a full trough... Prediction provides a happy hunting ground for amateurs, cranks, and outright publicity-seeking fakers".

       Richter’s comment holds particularly true in China when the internet chatrooms and microbloggs are often full of rumors of earthquake warnings when there is no earthquake. But when big earthquake does  come, like the Japanese earthquake last Friday, we did not see any warnings from the Chinese seismologists and their followers in the internet and microblogs.

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